Nets, Celtics get the full NBA in-season tiebreaker experience

NEW YORK — A handful of Nets players huddled on the court at HSS Training Center during shootaround Tuesday morning, asking coaches about the pesky point-differential tiebreaker that has brought arguably the loudest commentary surrounding the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament. Brooklyn was entering its matchup with Toronto already plus-8 through its first three games of Group C play and would need to emerge victorious, then potentially need a greater point differential in tournament play than both the Celtics and Magic in order to advance out of its opening pack.

“Now I know there’s some stuff about Boston winning or losing,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said he told the gaggle of players. “And once we got to there, I said it was too much for me. Let’s just get a win tonight.”

Ronnie Burrell, an assistant coach who also pilots Brooklyn’s G League affiliate in Long Island, spent a decade playing overseas before beginning his career on the sidelines, where he developed a familiarity with the tiebreaker and point differentials that often impact Euroleague and FIBA games abroad. Vaughn said Burrell helped explain there’s a history of this dynamic in professional basketball, even if it hadn’t washed up on American shores until this 2023-24 campaign.

Running up scores and chasing greater margins of victory run in direct contrast to the NBA’s unwritten rules of sportsmanship throughout an 82-game grind. It felt unnatural, for example, for Vaughn to leave his starters in late into last Tuesday’s victory against Orlando purely in pursuit of points. It’s not what NBA teams do, and it’s typically not worth risking the health of a franchise centerpiece, either. “I was holding my breath,” Vaughn said, “hoping that [Magic center] Mo Wagner wouldn’t undercut Mikal [Bridges] as he was getting a layup.”

And yet there were Vaughn’s Nets on Tuesday, defeating the visiting Raptors, juicing what was a 94-94 game with 4:30 to play into a 115-103 win. Brooklyn clearly pushed a breakneck pace over the final minutes, pinging the ball upcourt to 3-point shooters after word reached several coaches on the bench that Boston had managed to upend Chicago by 27 — even though both games began at 7:30 p.m. ET. That margin would also represent the Celtics’ final point differential of Group C play, having entered the evening with an even split through three games.

At first, 23 points stood as Boston’s magic number heading into their clash with the struggling Bulls — one tick better than Orlando’s 22-point differential the Magic had already compiled through their four games of tournament play. But the Celtics, and head coach Joe Mazzulla, wanted to take little risk in missing out on next week’s knockout round.

So leading by a staggering 29 points with 7:30 remaining, Mazzulla instructed his team to intentionally foul Chicago’s reserve center Andre Drummond, a career 47.7% free throw shooter, on consecutive possessions to bolster Boston’s chances. Even if the Celtics won by enough points to best the Magic’s mark, there was still the real possibility that Boston would have needed an even greater point differential to clinch the fourth Eastern Conference spot in the knockout round — dubbed the wild card — if Brooklyn held a greater differential than the Celtics after beating Toronto.

“When we got to that point, I felt like it was time to execute and put ourselves in position to advance into the tournament,” Mazzulla told reporters postgame.

Drummond missed all four attempts from his two trips to the line, thanks to Boston’s hacking, and Bulls head coach Billy Donovan swiftly removed the veteran big man from the contest. But not until after Donovan waded down the sideline and confronted Mazzulla about the extra gamesmanship that would normally fly in the face of the NBA’s gentleman’s agreement. Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ All-Star wing, even went on record before the contest against Chicago expressing his own disdain for the point differential.

"It's all about respecting the game and respecting your opponents," Tatum said. "So, that part, I'm not a fan of."

Donovan wasn't either, telling reporters postgame he "didn't like it" when Boston sent Drummond to the line. To Mazulla's credit, he went and found his opposing coach in the hallway of TD Garden following the contest to apologize and asked permission to apologize to Drummond as well.

The Celtics’ tactics worked, though, escaping the night as winners of Group C. Boston built a lead as large as 34, and its aggressive performance trickled its way down I-95 to Barclays Center, where the Nets had slammed their collective foot on the gas pedal, zipping far faster than Brooklyn otherwise would have for a standard Tuesday night game in late November. And across the East River, the New York Knicks continued throttling the visiting Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, tallying a final point differential of plus-42 to clinch the wild-card berth into the knockout round.

New York will now visit Milwaukee next week as Boston takes a trip to Indiana to face the Group A-winning Pacers, with spots in Las Vegas’ semifinals on the line. The night had coaches and executives across the league hawking box scores and streaming multiple screens. For all the consternation about gaudy courts and the respect of the game, the in-season tournament certainly morphed Tuesday’s games into something of a much larger, wonkier and weirder viewing experience — even for the people involved on the court.

"I guess it's met its intended purpose," said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.

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