LAS VEGAS — When league officials decided to play the semifinals and championship game of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament in Las Vegas, they knew it wouldn’t be an understated affair.
And it hasn’t been.
Though the semifinals Thursday count in the standings and half a million dollars is on the line for the players who win the final, the tournament has the combination of an exhibition All-Star Game feel to a playoff atmosphere intensity not often seen before Christmas.
Nelly and TLC set the tone by performing at Toshiba Plaza, where fans congregate outside T-Mobile Arena before entering the building.
Inside the arena were Julius Erving, Gary Payton, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Vivica A. Fox. The two-time WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces also were in attendance.
There was a red-carpet entry for LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and other top players. They played on a red-and-blue court.
“Just all of the different things that they have made of it, and you get to be a part of it and you’re like, man, this is pretty special,” Bucks All-Star guard Damian Lillard said. “I think the atmosphere was what it was. When I played USAB, that’s kind of how I felt, just like the energy in the building felt like USA Basketball in the summer because the crowd was just so neutral. But it was a good experience.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver watched the action, and he will give a state-of-the-league news conference before Saturday’s final. He no doubt will be asked about Las Vegas as a potential candidate for expansion, and Silver has said the city already is treated like the 31st franchise with each team playing in the Summer League here.
“This is like the worst-kept secret in the world, isn’t it, that this is eventually going to be an NBA city?” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve been coming here for so many years for Summer League. … I think the turnout today shows that there’s certainly interest in the NBA game. I believe that the NBA can make just about anything happen. The In-Season Tournament is something that there were many, many skeptics about for many years, and right now it’s all the buzz.”
NBA broadcast partners ESPN and TNT did the usually unthinkable, with one broadcasting one semifinal and the other network handling the other one. They even had dueling pre-game shows, with Charles Barkley of TNT’s popular “Inside the NBA” taking a shot at the ESPN’s vocal Stephen A. Smith by telling him not to come over to his set.
“This ain’t ‘First Take,’” Barkley told a laughing Smith. “This going to be the first (butt)-whooping you take.”
For all the glitz and glamour, the semifinals got off to a solemn start. A moment of silence for the victims of Wednesday’s mass shooting at UNLV took place before both semis. Three people were killed and a fourth seriously injured.
Image credits: AP