IIt couldn’t have been written better. The first-ever NBA Cup Finals in Las Vegas on Saturday night: budding star Tyrese Haliburton and his Cinderella story of an Indiana Pacers team against LeBron James, the league’s leader, fighting Father Time with a machete in physically imposing Los Angeles Lakers. The new and exciting vs. the iconic and tried and tested. Fast and kinetic – dark and tough. A perfect balance, something for everyone. The teams in the final stages of this season’s first NBA tournament represented the latest “thing that went right” in a growing list of favorable opportunities for Adam Silver and Co. as they attempt to complete the hard work of the regular season between October and mastering Christmas a little more interesting.
When the NBA extended universe landed in Vegas over the weekend, it found itself caught in a culture clash as a rodeo convention was in town at the same time the league landed on the Strip. Middle-aged men in cowboy hats, hand in hand with bleached blondes in bedazzled jeans, dominated much of Vegas, and nearly every bar and casino blared country music to accommodate them. But as the number of Kobe Bryant jerseys in their midst and the noise level in the arena for the Cup final attest, there were also plenty of basketball fans (especially of the Lakers persuasion): the city is, after all, just a city a four-hour drive from LA. And there was an atmosphere of excitement surrounding the arena – and the expansion of the event at neighboring Park MGM – that can only be attributed to the thrill of visiting something completely new.
It was an ideal scenario for the league that the two teams that appeared to take tournament play most seriously – both entered Saturday with identical 6-0 records – advanced to the finals. There’s a long-standing sports cliché, usually relatively unrealistic, that says success is the team that “wants more,” but in this case that seemed to be the case. Haliburton NBA colleague Paul George recently said on his podcast that he was “just tired of losing” and that winning the tournament would be the biggest achievement of his career, above his All-Star selection. And Lakers coach Darvin Ham told reporters that James made it clear to his team early in the tournament that this trophy was worth fighting for.
But even the teams that didn’t make it that far delivered some of the most exciting NBA regular season games ever in November and December. At the beginning of the experiment, there was doubt throughout the league and among fans that a competition created out of nowhere and placed in the middle of the doldrums of the NBA season could galvanize players and become something meaningful. But as it turns out, professional athletes are extremely competitive, a trait that higher stakes only encourage. The games turned out to be exciting and these doubts, as it turned out, were unfounded.
Not everything went smoothly. First, there were the polarizing specials designed to make it clear which games counted toward the tournament and which were boring regular-season contests. But some of the dishes were an attack on the eyes (that looked at you, Chicago Bulls), and many were simply not an ideal backdrop to determine the course of a basketball game. The point difference tie-breaker in group play also attracted some controversy (Silver said in his pre-match press conference on Saturday evening that he plans to address these concerns). And something even darker: a mass shooting at nearby UNLV On Wednesday, just a day before the tournament began, three people were killed and another injured. A moment of silence was observed before both semifinal games on Thursday, and James used his opening news conference to express his frustration at the lack of movement on gun laws to address the quintessentially American problem.
It was fitting in more ways than one that James ended up being the player who won the MVP trophy after the Lakers defeated the Pacers in the Finals. He put in some of the most brilliant performances of the tournament and was clearly on the pitch in every game, including the group stage. But more than that, for most of his 21-year NBA tenure, he was the face of the league, its most prominent ambassador. He clearly doesn’t take this role lightly and knew as well as anyone what it could mean for the NBA to have a more engaged audience early in the season, especially in light of negotiations for a potentially very lucrative new TV franchise. Rights Agreement.
Despite all of Adam Silver’s faults as Commissioner (and his recent predisposition to it). questionable comments on TV shows hosted by the Sleeve-Challenged), he wasn’t afraid of big swings. Most of these fluctuations were met with strong resistance, and some of them became real successes.
Its latest move, the in-season tournament, has accomplished everything it set out to do and more: engage the big stars (like James, Anthony Davis and semifinalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard) and bring new ones to a larger audience (the weekend doubled as a coming out party for Haliburton and marked only his third and fourth nationally televised games), bringing some excitement to an otherwise quiet stretch of the season and even seeing NBA officials Games take place in Vegas, which has long been rumored to be the future home of an expansion team. After a clearly successful first rodeo, it’s a safe Vegas bet that this tournament is here to stay, too.