The Boston Celtics were at the center of a thrilling finish to Group Play in the NBA's inaugural In-Season Tournament on Tuesday night. But a pair of Celtics players are wary of the precedent being set.
With Group Play point differential set as the IST's tiebreaker (after head-to-head record), the Celtics entered Tuesday needing to beat the Chicago Bulls by at least 23 points and needing the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Toronto Raptors in order to win Group C and advance to the IST Knockout Stage.
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But the unique situation meant Boston needed to keep its foot on the gas throughout Tuesday night's game despite having a massive lead. Head coach Joe Mazzulla played his starters deep into the fourth quarter and even intentionally fouled Chicago big man Andre Drummond with seven minutes remaining and his team up 32 points, prompting a conversation with visibly irritated Bulls head coach Billy Donovan at midcourt.
After the game, Celtics guard Jrue Holiday admitted the whole situation made him a bit uneasy.
"Yeah, it was a little weird," Holiday told reporters. "I guess maybe there’s some things I don’t agree with, but I also know that there are rules. We also want to win. We want to make the tournament and have the best seed that we can. So, I don’t like it, but I understand it."
Holiday said that Boston actively pursuing a bigger lead with the game already in hand felt disrespectful.
"Yeah, running up the score," Holiday said. "It just feels weird, like you’re disrespecting the game and your opponent. ... I don’t necessarily care for it, but I understand it, so I’ll do it.”
Celtics star Jaylen Brown agreed with his teammate.
“It’s tough because that’s just not how the game is supposed to be played,” Brown said after the game. “One, you've got to respect your opponents, and two, it’s just a weird setup. We understand the rules, but if I was on the other team, I would be upset as well when we were doing the Hack-a-Drummond in the middle of the fourth quarter. But our coaching staff made the decision and we stick with it.”
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Brown, who's a member of the NBA Players Association's Executive Committee, suggested there might be some discussions this offseason about the IST's format, and how situations like Tuesday night can be avoided.
"I think the agenda has been to try to increase competition, to increase revenue, to make it more exciting during this type of year," Brown said. "I don’t have a comment but I will say honestly, it’s a line between increasing excitement, revenue, notoriety, whatever and compromising the ethics of the game, you know?
"This is the first [time] we’ve kind of seen this but I’m sure there will be a lot of conversations going around that get to some decision. That’s all I’ll say about it."
Holiday and Brown make fair points, but the point differential tiebreaker also made for a highly entertaining night in the NBA, with fans and players alike scoreboard-watching in real time. The In-Season Tournament added juice to Boston's otherwise mundane matchup with the lowly Bulls, and the point differential tiebreaker meant fans were invested until the final buzzer despite the lopsided score.
The NBA will certainly take that into consideration while discussing the IST this offseason, but don't be surprised if the players make their voices heard, as well.