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NBA’s In-Season Tournament has taken off, and the ratings have reportedly followed

I’ll admit that I was one of those skeptics about the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, but commissioner Adam Silver has to be thrilled with the way this thing is playing out. To start, the group stage games were fun. And the first night knockout games — with the Pacers eliminating the Celtics and the Pelicans taking out the Kings — was awesome. 

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait for Tuesday night, when we get Knicks-Bucks and Suns-Lakers in the second batch of quarterfinals matchups. 

This whole event, to me, seemed like a gimmick. A shot in the dark at injecting some life into the NBA schedule’s dead zone of November and December. I didn’t think the players would care, beyond saying the right things. And by extension, I didn’t think the fans would care, either. 

But it’s been the total opposite. The players and teams bought in from the start, and perhaps as a result, the fans followed. And that’s when the energy took over. On Monday, the Indiana crowd gave their Pacers a raucous standing ovation after a little 7-2 mini surge to pull within one point at the 7:53 mark of the third quarter.

Again, this is early December. Only NBA diehards typically care this much this time of year. 

NBA basketball has never been more fun in November and early December than it has been this year,” Stan Van Gundy said on the Pelicans-Kings broadcast Monday night. “And I’m not sure it’s ever been more intense. I mean, these guys want these games.”

In fact, some would argue that teams want this inaugural NBA Cup, and the $500K payout per player that comes with it, a little too badly. Back on Nov. 28, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan was none too pleased with the Celtics intentionally fouling Andre Drummond with a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter in an effort to boost their point differential — which is a potential tiebreaker for advancing out of the group stage

Hey, the league wanted these guys to care about winning this thing, and if intentionally fouling up 30 isn’t caring, I don’t know what is. 

Perhaps Silver will tweak some rules next season to pacify the delicate sensibilities of multi-millionaire athletes, but until then, the old adage applies: If you don’t like the way you’re being treated when you’re down by 30, don’t allow yourself to go down by 30. Or find a center who can make a free throw. This is professional basketball. There aren’t any juice boxes at halftime. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us are out here loving this stuff. The crowds are loud. The players are completely invested. The coaches are pumped. In a video shared to social media, Suns‘ head coach Frank Vogel was particularly animated following his team’s IST win two weeks ago. On Monday, Vogel continued to praise the inaugural tournament, noting the excitement for the fans and likening the tournament to the NCAA’s March Madness. “Whatever they thought it was going to do from an excitement standpoint, I would say it’s times 100,” Vogel said.

Players ranging from future Hall of Famers like LeBron James and Steph Curry to younger stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Trae Young to European players like Kristaps Porzingis and Jonas Valanciunas have all endorsed the tournament in some fashion. In fact, after the Lakers earned their first road win of the season by defeating the Suns in IST play on Nov. 10, James said, “I heard there’s $500K on the line, so we’re going for that.”

And, again, kudos to Silver, who isn’t running from the clear problem that is the rapidly diminishing value of his regular-season — particularly his early regular-season — product. 

He stiffened the player participation policy so stars aren’t sitting out under the guise of “load management.” He made players who play in fewer than 65 games ineligible for awards, like MVP and All-NBA for instance, the latter of which can have significant monetary implications come contract time. He also cracked down on the flopping epidemic — though I’d like to see some more of the actual in-game technicals that are supposed to be doled out for some of this nonsense. 

And, of course, he tipped off this little tournament that has quickly turned into something pretty big. We’re only halfway through the quarterfinals and television ratings are already way up, according to Forbes. That is the point of all this, after all. The league is currently negotiating a new media rights deal. It’s trying to put its best foot forward, and it’s working when a lot of people didn’t think it would. 

There are two stats from the Forbes report that jump out at you. The Kings-Warriors IST game on Nov. 28 averaged two million viewers, which is a 93% increase for a game in a “comparable window” from last season, per the league. The average attendance of 18,206 for group play games is the NBA’s highest average on record for November, according to the league. 

Silver is the guy who gets the blame when thing go wrong in the NBA, especially on a macro level. In terms of regular-season juice, the NBA’s product was proving less and less worth the squeeze. Silver is starting to flip that, at least to the extent that he can within the context of a still-too-long 82-game season, and for that he deserves all the credit.

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