In-Season Tournament: What Cavaliers need to happen to advance

Max Strus, Cleveland Cavaliers
Max Strus, Cleveland Cavaliers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

The big picture for the Cleveland Cavaliers is easy to see. A team that started slow due to injuries has clawed back above .500 and is still a safe bet to make the playoffs. It will get late soon if they continue to play games without half of their rotation, but the core of this team looks every bit as good as it was in last year's 51-win season, if not better.

Zoom in, however, and their standing in the In-Season Tournament is a bit trickier to parse out. The NBA's inagural swing at this European-style competition has been both exciting and somewhat confusing. The brightly-painted courts make it easy to tell when a game is a part of the In-Season Tournament, but keeping track of standings and point differential can be a bit more difficult.

Here's a quick primer on the Tournament itself, how the Cavaliers have done, and how they can still advance to the knockout stage of the tournament.

What is the In-Season Tournament?

The In-Season Tournament is a separate competition housed inside of the NBA regular season. The NBA set aside seven nights in November (Tuesdays and Fridays) where the games played count for both the regular season standings and the "IST" group stage. NBA teams were divided into six different five-team groups; with each team playing the other teams in their group once each, that equals four "Group Stage" games for each franchise.

The top team in each group will advance to the Knockout Stage, as will one "Wild Card" from each Conference (more on that in a moment), where they will play a single-elimination bracket culminating in the final four teams playing in Las Vegas to see who wins the championship. There are financial incentives for players and coaches to compete, and every game but the title game will count toward their final season record.

To sum it up: four Group Stage games, top eight teams advance, winning teams get $$.

What has happened thus far?

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in East Group A, along with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. The Cavs opened tournament play with a close loss on the road to the Pacers, then beat the Pistons and 76ers to get to 2-1 with one game remaining.

The Pacers are already 3-0 with the tiebreaker over the Cavs (head-to-head record) so they have clinched a spot in the quarterfinals no matter what happens in their final game vs the Pistons. The Cavaliers aren't out of it yet, however, as they can still claim the East's Wild Card slot.

How the Wild Card works

After each group's winner is determined, the three second-place teams are compared to one another. The team with the best record moves on, and if there is a tie then a long list of tiebreakers will come into play: first point differential, then total points scored, and so forth.

Each group's second-place team is determined before it's compared to the other second-place teams, so it's possible that a team with a strong point differential finishes behind a team with a worse point differential based on head-to-head record.

The Cavaliers are currently 2-1 with a +6 point differential.

What do the Cavaliers need to happen?

First and foremost, the Cavaliers need to win their final Group Stage game against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. That game is in Cleveland and the Hawks are functionally eliminated from the Wild Card race, but it still counts in the overall season standings so they are unlikely to mail it in. The Cavs also need to keep in mind their overall point differential; a double-digit win is significantly more valuable than a close victory.

From there, the Cavaliers will need their point differential to be stronger than the other second-place teams. If they finish 3-1 and the other second-place teams are 2-2 they will immediately advance, but it's more likely that at least one other team ties their record and a tie-breaker is needed.

20 teams are in action tonight for the penultimate night of Group Stage games. Cavaliers fans should be rooting for any potential Wild Card teams to get a second loss. That means hoping the Boston Celtics roll the Orlando Magic tonight, the Brooklyn Nets lose to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, and the Milwaukee Bucks steamrolling the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

The Heat and New York Knicks also play tonight, and the Cavs probably want to simply root for a close game that doesn't gain the winner more than a couple of points of differential. The ideal scenario would be the Knicks winning tonight, then losing to the Hornets on Tuesday. That outcome would be the best-case scenario.

On the flip side, if the Cavaliers lose on Tuesday night then they are functionally eliminated. They also will be hard-pressed if the Bucks and Heat both win tonight and then Miami beats Milwaukee narrowly on Tuesday; the Bucks have the best point differential in the East right now and would be hard to catch for the Wild Card.

Cavaliers In-Season Tournament Cheat Sheet

Here's what Cavaliers fans should be rooting for:

Friday: Boston beats Orlando, New York beats Miami
Tuesday: Cleveland routs Atlanta, Milwaukee beats Miami, Charlotte beats New York, Toronto beats Brooklyn.

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