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The Lakers and the Pacers compete for the NBA Cup tonight in Las Vegas

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The NBA Cup is on the line tonight, and if you have no idea what I'm talking about, that's OK. The NBA Cup is a brand-new trophy, and it'll be awarded tonight to either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Indiana Pacers, who are playing each other in the finals of the league's very first in-season tournament. The novelty comes from soccer, where teams often compete in several tournaments throughout the season in addition to league play.

There were a lot of skeptics at first, but the tournament has been drawing fans, and the NBA players have decided to take it seriously. So what should we make of the results in the experiment? And just as importantly, as always, how much would an NBA Cup matter to the legacy of Lakers great LeBron James if his team wins? We'll talk it through with Justin Tinsley. He's senior sports and culture reporter at ESPN's The Undefeated. Hey, Justin.

JUSTIN TINSLEY: Hey. How you doing, man? Thanks for having me on.

DETROW: Thanks for being here. Did you yourself start out as a skeptic or a booster of this thing?

TINSLEY: Yeah, I did at first. I really remember asking myself - and I believe it was on an episode of "Around The Horn" - I'm like, what the hell is this? Like, what is going on here? I don't really get this. The scheduling was confusing, and then, oh, this round, you do this. This round, you do that. And I'm like, man, this is way too confusing.

DETROW: Yeah.

TINSLEY: But once you started to see the players buy into it, and then the fans bought into it, I was like, all right, well, something is different here. Like, this is actually working. It's making basketball in November and early December, I think it's fair to say, relevant again...

DETROW: Yeah.

TINSLEY: ...Where, in the past couple of years, it just wasn't.

DETROW: Since this is NPR and not "Around The Horn," unfortunately, can you just - can you zoom out a little bit and catch people up who are not as familiar with what we're talking about, what this tournament is? Like, what was the basic concept here?

TINSLEY: As you said earlier, they got the inspiration from soccer and the various cups that they played throughout their seasons. And so with the NBA, this in-season tournament is basically for a month. It started in November 3 and obviously concludes tonight, December 9, in Las Vegas. And what this is - there are six groups of five, three per conference, and each team plays everybody in their conference. And the team with the best record from each group advances to the knockout round, and all of these games are single elimination.

And all of these games count towards the regular season. The only game that doesn't count towards regular season stats is actually the championship game, the game tonight between the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers. So if somebody happens to break Will Chamberlain's record tonight of 101 points, it won't count for their scoring average, unfortunately.

DETROW: Too bad. I mean, let's talk a little bit about tonight's championship. This is kind of the best-case scenario for the league, right? You've got LeBron and the Lakers but also this Pacers team led by young star Tyrese Haliburton, who is the type of person we would not be caring that much about on national TV in any other sense, but he's just been on fire this whole tournament and getting a ton of attention.

TINSLEY: Yeah, and as you said, this is the best thing that happened for the league. And obviously, we can get into LeBron, and I'm sure we will - LeBron and the Lakers. But I'll focus on the Indiana Pacers just for right now. You know, Tyrese Haliburton - if you're a basketball nut, you know that Tyrese Haliburton had a lot of skill, and this guy was going to be a special player. But the in-season tournament has pretty much just been his coming-out party, nationally, at least.

And as you said, I think this is great for a star like him. This is Indiana, not always known as, like, the landing spot for big-time free agents. But Tyrese Haliburton said the other day - and I saw Woj on ESPN talking about it - he was basically saying, Tyrese Haliburton is using this in-season tournament as an audition to tell other superstar players like, hey, look, we are building something special here in Indiana. And if you like to shoot, come play with me because I will make sure you get shots because I love to pass the ball. Yes, I'm averaging 28 points a game, but I'm also leading the entire league in assists.

So this is a superstar coming out to the entire country, and the entire country is like, OK, well, Indiana needs to be on TV more because this is the product. We need to be watching that, and that is directly a product of the in-season tournament.

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah. I'm going to go now to the black hole of gravity that every conversation about the NBA pulls you toward...

TINSLEY: Right.

DETROW: ...The inevitable LeBron, Michael Jordan conversation. I mean, if LeBron wins tonight, if he has this NBA Cup on his resume, how much, if at all, do you think that matters on the head-to-head comparison that will never stop between the two of them?

TINSLEY: Oh, it doesn't matter at all - because see, here's the thing. When you talk about LeBron and Mike, the people who are on Mike's side are solidly on my side. The people who are on LeBron's side are solidly on LeBron's side. So you really can't move the needle. It just gives us another talking point to talk about. But I think it's incredible. I think it's amazing. I think it's great for basketball to see the way that LeBron has attacked this in-season tournament because if he's playing like this, it's going to energize so many other players around the league to be like, maybe I need to, you know, give this my best shot, too. And the fans around the world are seeing LeBron basically play the way he has been this entire in-season tournament - and especially that last game against the New Orleans Pelicans, where he just had one of the best games of his career in year 21.

DETROW: He was dropping three-pointers from, like, almost half court. It was wild to watch.

TINSLEY: Yeah. He was pulling up from the logo.

DETROW: Yeah.

TINSLEY: He scored 30 points in 23 minutes, which was the quickest and most efficient 30-point game of his career. And this guy started in October of 2003.

DETROW: Listen, I'm the exact same age as LeBron James, so I appreciate old people like us doing well out there.

TINSLEY: Hey, I'm right in that same age bracket with y'all.

DETROW: Representing the old millennials.

TINSLEY: (Laughter).

DETROW: That is Justin Tinsley of ESPN's The Undefeated, talking about the NBA in-season tournament, which culminates tonight with the Lakers play the Pacers in Las Vegas. Thanks so much.

TINSLEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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