Nobody knew how this thing was going to work. So if there were any hiccups, that was expected for the first time the NBA tried this tournament.
Still, they could not deny the interest and the intensity of their final night of the group phase to set up their single-elimination quarterfinal next week. Unfortunately, all the Orlando Magic could do after going 3-1 with a +22 point differential was sit and watch it all happen.
They saw the Toronto Raptors struggle to keep pace with the Brooklyn Nets, eventually falling by double digits on the road. They saw the Boston Celtics obliterate the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden, fouling Andre Drummond in the fourth quarter to try to keep building the lead over 30 points to ensure their passage to the knockout round.
It was awkward and frustrating for fans, but a downside of how the NBA chose to conduct its tournament.
All the Magic were left with was one simple emotion: Disappointment.
"It's tough honestly," Jalen Suggs said at shootaround Wednesday. "From a competitive standpoint, I know that is something we all wanted to play in and achieve and go make a run in that tournament. But I think Mose said it best this morning: Control what you can control. We put our best foot forward. If we did not have that loss against Brooklyn where we continued to let them roll and put points on the board, maybe we're in."
That should speak to the competitiveness on this team. And also the understanding that they are ultimately the authors of their own success. They did a lot to put themselves in a position to advance in the tournament and they wanted to win in it and make some noise on a national stage.
Banchero noted that almost immediately after the Magic's win over the Celtics perhaps the team did not realize how important that loss to the Nets would be or how they were unable to run up the score against the Bulls after taking the lead in the second half. That is a lesson learned for a young team.
That part of the team's journey is over now. The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks are the ones moving on, squeezing the Orlando Magic out. Orlando officially finished sixth in the Eastern Conference standings (they will face the fifth-place Cleveland Cavaliers in one of their added games next week).
Orlando still got the benefit of going 3-1 during those games for the regular season record and its ultimate goal of reaching the postseason. The In-Seaosn Tournament ended up helping the team build this eight-game win streak.
The team is looking to take positives from it and learning form the experience moving forward.
"There's definitely disappointment," coach Jamahl Mosley said at shootaround before Wednesday's game. "Our guys understand how bad we wanted it. But It's also a great lesson that every game counts, every game matters. You can take this lesson and move forward with it as we move later in the season that you can't take any games for granted. But on the flip side of that, you have to make sure you can control what you can control and move on from that."
That is a critical lesson for a young team especially one without playoff experience. Better to learn how important every game and every moment is now rather than take that lesson in a Play-In Tournament elimination game or Game 1 of the playoffs.
That was a big thing the In-Season Tournament could give a team like the Magic. It was an early test of the team's focus and ability to play in meaningful games. Regardless of whether the team advanced or not, they passed that test. And it has everyone excited for the rest of the season.
The tournament is indeed behind them now. But Suggs added he is excited to get back into the In-Season Tournament next year.
It is hard not to feel the excitement of the tournament. And the NBA is doing victory laps after a strong final day of group play before Monday and Tuesday's single-elimination quarterfinals.
"I think we had the best court by far," Joe Ingles said after shootaround Wednesday. "Everyone else's court sucked. It was fun. In a sense, the NBA got what it wanted so far out of it. The games were great and competitive. I don't know what the numbers were like but I'm sure people were watching [Tuesday] night. It was fun."
There is no doubt the tournament added some interest in the league during the early part of the season. And players were certainly just as bought in -- despite the multi-million-dollar salaries for the players, they all said the $500,000 bonus for winning was enticing.
If players were not bought in, they probably would not have participated in the most controversial parts of the opening round.
The Magic were part of that. The Celtics were a bit peeved at the Magic trying to continue to score late in their game Friday. They turned it around and put the screws to the Bulls, fouling Andre Drummond with a big lead in the fourth quarter to try to build a 30-plus-point lead to stay ahead of the Knicks for the wild card in case the Nets lost their game.
Billy Donovan and Joe Mazulla gathered at mid-court while this was all going on where Mazulla explained his strategy and what the Celtics needed. The discourse around the league was whether this was somehow staining the game. Devin Booker even chimed in saying everyone should play to the finish and not care about the score.
The Magic obviously were hurt by this maneuvering. But nobody was bitter about it.
"That's way above my paygrade," Ingles said after shootaround Wednesday about the Magic's elimination from the tournament on point differential. "I understand both sides of what people are saying with it with the respect of the game. Billy Donovan and Joe Mazulla arguing about it. I fully understand both sides. I don't think teams will do it tonight or the rest of the year. I think teams will play like they have for years and years now. But I understand why teams are trying to do it in the In-Season Tournament. Players are going to play for $500,000. For us now it's back to normal business of playing and doing what we do."
The season does march on. The In-Season Tournament will march on.
This experiment was undoubtedly a success and we will certainly see some tweaks to the competition now that everyone has done it once -- and surely the players will provide some feedback on everything including the tiebreaker system and the court).
The tiebreaker system has gotten the most attention with a lot of people pitching ideas -- including leaving out some NBA teams or adding G-League teams to make sure there are an even number of teams to avoid teams sitting out the final day as the Magic had to do, moving to a point system that eliminates point differential as a tiebreaker and gives teams points for winning games and quarters or (my pitch, at least) capping point differential at 20 points for any one game to avoid the scenario that played out Tuesday.
The main thing everyone should remember though is that explaining the tournament format was still difficult even as we got to the end of group play. The league is trying to fit this tournament into a very short window in November and December to accomplish its goal of getting attention on non-football days on the sports calendar early in the season. Simplicity is going to be the key to any additions or changes they make to this thing.
As Adam Silver continually said about the tournament: Traditions take time to get established. And everyone knew this first year would be an experiment for the league. There will be some tweaks next year.
But experience in how the tournament plays out and how the standings will shake out will also add to the intensity of the games. Everyone felt the games were different and that is what the league wanted. So there may not be a lot of changes as the league lets the tournament play out.
Orlando is definitely disappointed and fans are certainly frustrated with how things closed out. Orlando had what turned out to be the bad draw of not playing on the final day. But the team got a lot from the two week experiment and now have a new goal to pursue next year.
Vengeance is indeed a dish best served cold. And they will have to put those feeling away until next November.