Players, Coaches Gripe About Tournament’s Point Differential Tiebreaker

As teams battled for a spot in the quarterfinals of the NBA’s first in-season tournament, point differential served as an important tiebreaker. It was used in several instances to determine the winner of a group, a conference’s wild card team, and the seeding of certain quarterfinalists.

That sort of tiebreaker is necessary in the round robin stage of an event that sees 30 teams playing just four games, since there will be many identical records and several instances in which head-to-head record won’t suffice.

However, a number of players and coaches around the NBA weren’t thrilled by the late-game situations created by the focus on point differential, as ESPN details. Knicks forward Josh Hart was one player to express dissatisfaction with the idea that his team had to try to run up the score on Tuesday vs. Charlotte in order to advance.

“It was interesting. I don’t really like it,” Hart said. “We were focused, at first, just about winning. The last couple of minutes it feels weird. At a certain point, you just start chasing points, doing all that. So it kind of messes with the integrity of the game a little bit.”

Teams like the Celtics and Cavaliers, meanwhile, kept their starters on the floor in Tuesday’s games well past the point that the outcomes had been decided in the hopes of widening their respective leads and improving their overall point differentials. Echoing Hart, both Jaylen Brown and Donovan Mitchell referred to it as “a little weird.”

“It’s tough because that’s just not how the game is supposed to be played,” Brown said.

Hawks head coach Quin Snyder, who pulled his starters with about four minutes left vs. Cleveland, said the situation wasn’t “ideal,” while Bulls head coach Billy Donovan was unhappy about Boston padding its lead by repeatedly fouling Andre Drummond in the fourth quarter to send the big man to the free throw line (he made one of six attempts).

“I also understand the situation he’s in too. He’s got to coach his team and do what’s right,” Donovan said of Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. ”But I think it was putting Andre in a tough spot down 30 points. But this is from the league. This is what the league has done, making this point differential thing.”

Concerns about the effect the point differential tiebreaker had near the end of certain games arose last Friday as well. DeMar DeRozan was ejected late in a loss to Toronto for taking exception to the Raptors attempting to score when the shot clock was off. In that case, Toronto had already been eliminated from qualifying for the quarterfinals, but appeared to be unaware of that fact.

Assuming the in-season tournament returns in 2024/25, it will be interesting to see if the NBA tweaks its tiebreaker rules to address concerns from players and coaches, or if the league will simply count on everyone getting more accustomed to the format and learning to live with it.

Making total points allowed a tiebreaker rather than point differential would be one way to eliminate the incentive for teams to run up the score in a blowout. However, a change along those lines could result in unwanted side effects, including slowing down the pace of tournament games.

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