NBA In-Season Tournament winners and losers: LeBron James, Tyrese Haliburton shine; Zion Williamson disappears

The NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament (IST) has been a much bigger success than most people anticipated, headlined in part by the Cinderella Pacers making it to the championship against LeBron James and the Lakers. 

Even without that intriguing matchup, this tournament has been a ton of fun. The idea that the players wouldn’t care has been completely proven false, and it’s created a ton of excitement during the beginning of the season. There have been big-time performances, thrilling finishes and some impressive environments.

With that in mind, here are the biggest winners and losers heading into Saturday’s finale.

MORE: The best moments from this week in the NBA

NBA In-Season Tournament winners

Tyrese Haliburton

Unfathomably, Haliburton had not played in a TNT game in his entire career before the IST Quarterfinals. The Pacers had not been on national TV this season, either. The world finally got to see how good he was, and he didn’t disappoint. 

Haliburton dropped a combined 53 points, 28 assists and zero turnovers against the Celtics and Bucks, leading the Pacers to two underdog victories. He proved virtually all of the pre-draft criticisms against him wrong, blowing by Brook Lopez for a layup and pulling up for a deep 3 late against the Bucks to clinch the win. 

Haliburton has emerged as a true star and the best pure point guard in the game. The exposure for him has been way overdue. 

MORE: Why 11 teams passed on Tyrese Haliburton in the 2020 NBA Draft

Charles Barkley

The Semifinals included a crossover between the ESPN and TNT crews. There were plenty of big personalities, but Barkley’s shone brightest.

He had the quip of the night when he jokingly threatened to kick Stephen A. Smith’s “loud a—.” He followed that up by burying the Warriors, with former general manager Bob Myers sitting at ESPN’s desk nearby.  

Never change, Chuck.

LeBron James

The fact that James is so dominant when he’s about to turn 39 years old is astounding. He’s been the best player on the court for the Lakers, controlling the offense and making intelligent plays on defense. He even drew multiple charges against the Pelicans in a blowout win during the Semifinals, showing how badly he wants to win this tournament. 

James had 30 points in only 23 minutes against the Pelicans, eviscerating them so thoroughly that he didn’t even need to play down the stretch. That came off the heels of a 31-point, 11-assist, 8-rebound masterpiece that he had against the Suns on Tuesday. He’s proving that he’s still easily a top 10 player in the game. 

MORE: LeBron James is still one of the NBA’s most clutch players

Adam Silver

There was a lot of pushback on the idea of this tournament, but Silver has pulled it off beautifully. 

There were some things he could improve. Having the Semifinals start at 2 p.m. local time was a mistake, for example. And the slipperiness of the rushed specialty courts was an issue. But for the most part, this was even better than expected.

Kudos to Silver for not being afraid to try new ideas. 

WATCH: Stream the biggest games of the 2023-24 NBA season with Sling TV

NBA In-Season Tournament losers

Zion Williamson New Orleans Pelicans 101523

Zion Williamson

Williamson disappeared in the Semifinals against the Lakers, scoring just 13 points as his team lost by 44. It was his first high-stakes NBA game (he’s never been in the playoffs), and he looked slow throughout the entirety of it. 

That was apparent to Shaquille O’Neal, who gave Williamson some genuine advice after the game. “I was just like him,” Shaq said, before criticizing Williamson’s effort, aggression and lack of rebounding. 

The talent is obviously there, but there have been many areas where Williamson has been lacking. He hasn’t been able to punish defenders for sagging off him, his defense has taken a major step back and he’s coasted through games. 

“I gotta be better,” Williamson told reporters after the loss. “I gotta be more aggressive finding my shot. I gotta do more things to get my team going. I think I was too laid back tonight, and I can’t do that.”


The Knicks battled hard to make the Knockout Rounds but lost in the Quarterfinals to the Bucks. Their reward? They get to play the Celtics an extra time this season in Boston. 

That is one of the flaws of the IST that needs to be resolved. Good teams get punished, while bad teams get rewarded as part of the scheduling quirks of making the preliminary games count towards the regular season.

The Knicks will now play the Celtics five times this season, which could be crucial for playoff seeding at the end of the year. 

MORE: Damian Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll potential in one play

Adrian Griffin

The new Bucks coach has to be feeling some heat. Although his team has a solid 15-7 record, they have not played up to their potential. Their defense has taken a nosedive, in part due to Griffin trying to change the scheme to start the year. And the offense should be a lot better than it currently is. 

Griffin was called out by Bobby Portis after the team’s loss to the Pacers, according to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes. Portis reportedly stressed that the offense needed to be more structured late in games, and Griffin acknowledged that he could do a better job. 

That criticism came in part due to a botched play with two minutes left in a one-possession game. Damian Lillard was unsure of what the team was running, leading to a costly turnover when Khris Middleton’s pass was picked off. 

“We have to be more organized,” Giannis Antetokounmpo told The Athletic’s Eric Nehm afterward. “We have to know what we are trying to get down the stretch.” 

The Bucks have championship aspirations, but they look far from the best team in the league at the moment. It was already going to be difficult to fill the shoes of a great coach in Mike Budenholzer. Griffin is looking like a clear downgrade at the moment. 

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