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Cramming for the in-season tournament: a study guide on the league’s newest attraction

Boston plays its first tournament game on Friday hosting the Nets.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

The NBA in-season tournament kicked off last night – and will provide us slightly different vibes for the rest of November.

The tournament is an attempt to jazz up the beginning of the regular season with new courts and an extra trophy. NBA fans have already accused the league of thrusting unnecessary meaning onto the tournament games – which also count as regular season games – by marketing them as part of a separate championship.

But the tournament isn’t just lipstick on a few regular-season pigs. (It is, however, an excuse to slather green lipstick all over the parquet pig that is the Celtics’ new alternate court.)

It’s also a real tournament, with real stakes – and a trophy! – that the Celtics are poised to walk through and win. Here’s a no-nonsense review of the tourney before the Celtics get involved.

Group Play

The tournament starts out with a group stage. Each team plays four games throughout the month of November, vying for a chance to advance. Those games are built into the regular-season schedule and count toward every team’s overall record. Not every November game is for the tournament; every game played on Tuesdays and Fridays, without exception, is a tournament game in the month of November.

For the Celtics, the tournament begins on Friday against the Brooklyn Nets. After that, Boston will play the Toronto Raptors on the 17th, the Chicago Bulls on the 24th, and the Orlando Magic on the 28th.

Groups were randomized by last year’s regular-season standings. Those four teams (Nets, Raptors, Bulls, Magic) plus the Celtics make up group C – all in all, a good draw for Boston. Of their four opponent,s only the Nets made the playoffs last year – and they lost in the first round after trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant during the season.

By comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks have to face the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, both playoff teams last year. The Philadelphia 76ers will play against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had the best defense in the league last year, and the Indiana Pacers – who could surprise a lot of teams this year, and in this tournament, with their speed and intensity.

Anything can happen in a series of four regular-season games, but the gap between Boston and the rest of the teams in group C is larger than that of any other team in the league. The Celtics should move on.

Knockout Rounds

If the Celtics advance, either by winning their tournament group or securing a wild-card spot (there is one for each conference, based on best second-place record in the East and West), they will move on to single-elimination games.

Quarterfinals will be played Dec. 4-5. The semifinals and finals will be held in Las Vegas Dec. 7-9.

The knockout rounds are pretty simple: Eight teams advance (four per conference). The team with the best record in the conference will play the wildcard team, and the two teams in the middle play each other. The winners go to Vegas, where they will play in the semis.

The quarter- and semifinals all count toward the regular-season record. That’s why the schedule in December hasn’t been ironed out yet – the league needs flexibility for the tournament.

The tournament championship is the only game that does not count toward the regular-season record. The finalists will play for a trophy that looks like a fancy, empty ice cream cone. You’ll see plenty of that trophy, too: It’s plastered in the middle and in the paint of every in-season alternate court.

The league also will name an In-Season Tournament MVP and an All-Tournament Team.

The Celtics are easily the best team in the league through four games. They are the only undefeated team, and their net rating (+20.1) is 8 points better than any other team’s. Who knows how long that will hold up – things change quickly in this league – but it’s looking like Boston should be the favorite going into the tournament.

It’s a great opportunity to get excited about the new-look Celtics, who might get their first piece of hardware in just over a month.

And if you don’t like it, just pretend it’s regular-season basketball – even if those terrible court designs will make it tougher – because, with one notable exception, it is.

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