Survive and advance: Phoenix Suns win tiebreaker, eye NBA In-Season Tournament knockout round

The Phoenix Suns shine in vibrant ‘El Valle’ uniforms and on a specialized court at Footprint Center for the inaugural NBA In-Seaston Tournament. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns are still in the hunt.

Despite not being in action, the Suns were actively watching Tuesday’s slate of NBA In-Season Tournament games of group play to determine if the point differential tiebreaker would sway in their favor to advance to the knockout round.

After the Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 106-103, Phoenix got its answer and sealed the West Group’s lone wild-card spot in the quarterfinals next Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers due to a plus-34 point differential over the Wolves. The winner earns a trip to Las Vegas, the host city of the semifinals and championship games.

The Suns started the tournament with a 122-119 loss to the Lakers but managed to win three consecutive games to keep hope alive. Among these victories, all played without the Big 3 at full strength, their 110-89 triumph over the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 24 was particularly noteworthy.

Devin Booker’s 40-point performance allowed the Suns to remain in contention for the wild-card spot in the Western Conference. With 12.9 seconds remaining, Booker banked a three-pointer off the glass to extend the lead to 21.

“No disrespect to the Grizzlies,” Booker told azcentral’s Duane Rankin after the game. “I wouldn’t take that shot if it wasn’t (the) in-season tournament, but we needed it.”

Adam Silver and the NBA have consistently demonstrated a willingness to evolve the league, and the inaugural in-season tournament is another example.

An 82-game regular season brings its challenges, and among the biggest in recent years is the practice of “load management,” with star players often taking off games in an effort to remain fresh and avoid injuries. It shows that teams are willing to sacrifice regular-season games to be at their best during the playoffs. However, it also has diminished the value of the regular season in the eyes of some.

Adding to the challenges, with teams playing multiple games per week, there is not as much anticipation for game day as there is in some other sports, especially football where teams play only one game per week.

The underlying idea behind the in-season tournament is to inject more competition and importance into the early stages of the regular season for players and fans.

“The NBA does as good a job as any professional sports league out there at marketing their game and coming up with ways to make it fun and interesting for our fans,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said.

Under the new tournament format, all 30 teams are divided into six groups, with one wild-card team and three group winners from each conference advancing to the knockout stage.

And there’s a substantial incentive involved for players: money.

The winning team will receive the NBA Cup and each player and coach earns a $500,000 prize. Players on the second-place team receive $200,000. Even the losing teams in the knockout stage will not leave empty-handed. Players from the semifinals will receive $100,000 each, and those from the quarterfinalists will receive $50,000 each.

While the league’s superstars, signed to multi-million dollar contracts, don’t necessarily need the additional cash, they are motivated to keep winning and help their teammates on minimum contracts.

The NBA has implemented several measures to distinguish the tournament games, including the use of unique court designs. The courts are brightly colored and feature a large NBA Cup in the center, positioned behind the team’s logo and inside the paint.

“The unique court kind of gives players a sense that they’re playing for something different,” said Brendan Mau, Suns reporter for Burn City Sports. Bradley Beal, who made his Phoenix Suns home debut on the purple and turquoise court, described the court as “energetic” and said the game felt like a “playoff atmosphere.”

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Since 2016, NBA teams have designed their own Nike City Edition uniforms they will wear throughout the season and now during the tournament as well. This campaign encourages teams to showcase their community’s history or heritage on their uniforms.

Last year, the Suns paid tribute to all 22 of Arizona’s Native American tribes with their City Edition uniform. This year, the team is celebrating the vibrant Mexican-American culture of the city.

Miguel Godoy, an art professor at Arizona State University, designed the ‘El Valle’ (The Valley) uniforms and incorporated elements of Chicano lowrider culture. From the classic Chicano cursive script to the side panel design, Godoy reflected his culture and heritage in the look.

“I think it’s really important to recognize those communities,” said Eliav Gabay, reporter for Sports360AZ. “They’re a part of Suns nation, just like everybody else.”

The seed for an in-season tournament was planted during the pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 NBA season. Due to COVID-19, the NBA transitioned the end of the season to the quarantined “Bubble” at Walt Disney World Resort. The seventh to 10th seeds in each conference competed in a play-in tournament to determine which two teams would move on to the playoffs. The format was deemed a success as it helped more teams remain competitive and prevented them from intentionally tanking games for a better draft pick.

While the change to the regular-season format was born out of COVID-19, the NBA is also taking inspiration from other professional sports. A prime example would be European soccer. These tournaments often create excitement among players and fans. The NBA is a global brand with a massive following, and the league’s top international players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić help to increase its popularity and reach. With that reach into markets around the world, the NBA’s is reaching fans accustomed to in-season tournaments, especially in soccer.

“They’re getting inspired by international soccer and they’re trying to add more competition to the beginning of the season,” Gabay said.

The NBA also looked to the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup, where players competed for additional cash and represented a charity of their team’s choice. The WNBA’s annual tournament has been well-received, with three seasons already played under the format.

“I think once it goes around the first time this year, then players will start to get more accustomed to it, and it’ll be a good thing for the league,” Mau said.

The in-season tournament has had a successful start, attracting an average of 1.7 million viewers on its inaugural night. Netflix is interested in acquiring streaming rights for the games, according to Front Office Sports, indicating the tournament has serious revenue-producing potential.

The league, eyeing lucrative media rights deals after the 2024-2025 season, sees the tournament’s success and the new Player Participation Policy – aimed at stemming the load-management trend – as factors that could elevate these deals.

In part, the PPP requires players to play in a minimum number of games in order to be eligible for league-wide awards, such as Most Valuable Player or Rookie of the Year.

With the Suns’ Big 3 of Booker, Beal and Kevin Durant missing multiple games this season, Phoenix is on a seven-game winning streak and currently sits atop the Pacific Division at 11-6.

Considering the number of injuries the team has faced, its start to the season has been quite promising. The beginning of any season is crucial for most teams, but it is even more important for the Suns who have undergone a major roster overhaul and have a new head coach.

A point of emphasis this past offseason was adding depth to the star-heavy roster, and Eric Gordon and Grayson Allen have provided a needed scoring boost in the backcourt, while Jusuf Nurkic has been a consistent performer, starting every game and coming close to averaging a double-double. The team’s increased length on the court has also improved its defensive capabilities.

“I know the in-season tournament has all the excitement, but they just got to focus on that chemistry,” Gabay said. “That’s what people need to look at for the Suns – they need to be developing as a group right now.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sebastian Sanchez expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sanchez is a content creator and is working toward a job as a beat writer.