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On Basketball

An intense and passionate title game proved the NBA’s In-Season Tournament was fully embraced

LeBron James (center) and the Lakers defeated the Pacers in the In-Season Tournament final.Ian Maule/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The NBA’s first In-Season Tournament was a rousing success, and the basketball community knew that well before Saturday’s championship game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers.

What the championship game proved, with its intensity, passion, and determination from the participants, was that this idea adopted from European soccer was completely embraced. NBA players, even those who make in the neighborhood of $40 million per season, were motivated by the $500,000 prize for the winning team, which was the Lakers.

The Lakers ended Indiana’s impressive Final Four-like run with a 123-109 win Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. This In-Season Tournament isn’t going anywhere. It will become a staple of the season, an early December playoff tease with highly competitive basketball on those colorful courts with the semifinals in America’s most exciting city.


The championship results were expected. The Pacers were due for a clunker after topping the Celtics and the Bucks over the past five days. All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton, who used this tournament to emerge as an MVP candidate and franchise cornerstone, couldn’t figure out the Lakers’ double teams with their massive size.

Myles Turner, who looked so smooth and comfortable against the Celtics and Bucks, had no clue how to defend Anthony Davis, could barely score at the rim, and eventually fouled out in 25 minutes.

The Lakers, who have looked flawless at home and putrid on the road, put together an impressive stretch of basketball to reach this point. LeBron James played as if he’s still the best player in the NBA, displaying a burst and athleticism that embarrassed younger opponents who were toddlers when he entered the league.

Davis, often maligned for playing at less than his potential, manhandled the Pacers in the paint for 41 points, 20 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots in a game-high 40 minutes.


Anthony Davis (right) was defended by Tyrese Haliburton in the second half.Ian Maule/Associated Press

The Lakers are the NBA Champions of December, whatever that means. For them, however, the victory was significant. They thoroughly enjoyed this tournament, celebrated afterward with champagne and beer, enjoying their run despite the fact the season resumes Monday.

“I think that’s thinking too far down the road,” James said when asked if this is a precursor to an actual championship. “We want to put it in perspective that it’s still December. We like where we are right now but we want to continue to work our habits, continue to get healthy as well. But I think right now where we are in December, I would take it. I would take it. But I’m definitely not looking to May and June. That’s too far. There’s too many steps that need to be taken still in order for our team to be who we want to be once the postseason starts.”

The fascinating aspect of this tournament is that the participating teams aren’t fully sure how they will react to regular games. Indiana coach Rick Carlisle noted the Pacers are scheduled to play Monday and the team flew directly from Las Vegas to Detroit for a matchup against the league-worst Pistons.

Carlisle quipped the Pacers were scheduled for a Monday game because the league didn’t believe they would advance so far in the tournament, and he’s right. There’s no coincidence the only teams off Monday are the Lakers, Celtics, Suns, and Warriors.


“It’s funny because it’s like everybody says this has like the NCAA Tournament feel,” Haliburton said. “But after a game like that you’re sitting in the locker room going, most of us ain’t graduating, we play on Monday. We’ve got to take that one on the chin, and we’ve got a flight tomorrow and we play Detroit on Monday. I know it has that NCAA Tournament feel, championship feel, but we play in a couple days, so it’s all part of the season.”

The NBA wanted more exposure in early December. League officials are weary that the regular season really doesn’t begin until the Christmas Day slate. They want more of the December attention, when most American sports fans are consumed with NFL playoff positioning and college bowl games.

Yet there is an international crowd hungry for more NBA, and don’t think commissioner Adam Silver didn’t love that Thursday’s 2 p.m. local semifinal was early enough for some fans in Europe and Asia to watch before midnight. This In-Season Tournament was just as much about international exposure as giving US fans more meaningful basketball.

“I will say in terms of the interest we are seeing around the In-Season Tournament, I don’t think it was just the money,” Silver said Saturday. “I think it was the competition, in part. I think it was coming to Vegas. I think it was all of those things that made the difference. I should say, also, players like LeBron, Steph [Curry], other leading veterans in this league embracing this from Day One, that makes a big difference with the players, too.”


The question is whether this tournament tells us any more about how the season will conclude than before it began. The Lakers are going to be a factor in the Western Conference. The Pacers are a dark horse in the East with an exciting up-tempo style and a slew of young talent but a Swiss-cheese defense.

Meanwhile, the 26 teams that didn’t advance to Las Vegas, including the Celtics, have already resumed play and some have their sights set on a championship. But for now, the Lakers have something the Celtics don’t, the In-Season Tournament cup and bragging rights because they were able to survive this journey unscathed.

“Shout-out to the NBA, Adam Silver, the crew, everybody that took this idea and made it a reality,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Even the way the games were interwoven into the regular season, it’s a huge shot in the arm, especially for our group, the guys we brought back, the guys we added and just playing some highly, highly intense basketball games. With the playoff atmosphere/NCAA Tournament atmosphere, being in a neutral city, I dig it. It was a beautiful experience.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.