NBA Eastern and Western Conference Races for Playoff Spots Already Hotly Contested

By Patrick Hayes   March 22, 2021 

NBA Eastern and Western Conference Races for Playoff Spots Already Hotly Contested

The NBA regular season doesn’t end until May 16, but the playoff races already appear as if they’re going to go down to the wire, particularly for the last playoff spots in each conference.

There’s an added wrinkle this year, though, as the NBA’s modified “play-in” rule that was implemented during the season restart in Orlando last season has been brought back this year and will occur May 18-21. The format is slightly more complex than last season and is already making waves in NBA futures world.

As explains, the tournament will feature the teams in 7th-10th place in each conference battling for the last two playoff spots. The 7th and 8th place teams at the end of the season will face each other, with the winner earning the seven seed. The loser of that game will play the winner of a matchup between the 9th and 10th place teams, with the winner of that earning the eighth seed. 

The format favors the teams who end the regular season in seventh and eighth place, as each of those teams would need to win only one game to clinch while the 9th or 10th place team would need to win twice to earn a spot.

The tournament will certainly add an entertaining pre-playoff wrinkle to what has already been an exciting regular season, but even without it, the playoff races in both conferences are tense.

Eastern Conference

In the Eastern Conference, the teams in fourth-tenth places are all separated by 2.5 games, and the Toronto Raptors, who just won a championship in 2019, are in 11th place, just 2.5 games out of 10th. 

Apr 7, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) battles for the ball with New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose (4), center Taj Gibson (67) and New York Knicks forward Reggie Bullock (25) during the second quarter at TD Garden. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of Eastern Conference scenarios that could prove entertaining. The Miami Heat, for example, are currently in fourth, but they’ve had their share of struggles this season and could easily fall into the play-in tournament range in the standings. Imagine if the last two Eastern Conference finalists, the Heat and Raptors, had to face each other in a play-in scenario to even make the playoffs this season. 

Currently, the teams that would be involved in the play-in tournament are the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, and Chicago Bulls.

The Knicks and Hornets would play each other for the seven spot, with the loser facing the winner of the Pacers and Bulls game for the final spot.

Of that group, three of the teams (the Knicks, Hornets, and Bulls) were not playoff teams a season ago. New York and Charlotte were both expected to struggle this season, so them even being in the mix for playoff spots is a victory for them. Charlotte will have a tougher path, as the Hornets recently lost Rookie of the Year frontrunner LaMelo Ball for the rest of the season with a wrist injury.

The Pacers have struggled of late and spent much of the season in the Eastern Conference’s top six and out of the mix to have to earn their way into the playoffs through a tournament. But of the four current teams in those spots, Indiana has the most firepower, with Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris LeVert all posing matchup difficulties for opponents. The Pacers also have playoff experience from last season, albeit brief experience as they were swept in their first round series. 

The Heat and Celtics have both fallen way short of expectations this season and both run a real risk of having to win spots in this tournament to get playoff spots.

Western Conference

Apr 4, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) grabs a rebound over Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) and guard Trae Young (11) in the second quarter at State Farm Arena: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The West actually had a play-in scenario triggered last year, when the Portland Trail Blazers had to win over the ninth place Memphis Grizzlies to get their playoff spot. 

But the actual scenario in the Western Conference bubble likely played a role in expanding the play-in format. Portland overcame a small deficit and overtook Memphis in the standings. But Phoenix actually was the most impressive of any bubble team, winning all eight games in Orlando. The Suns finished three games back of Portland for eighth, within the four games mandated in the modified rules to trigger a play-in. But because Memphis finished ahead of them, they got the play-in as there was no way to account for multiple teams finishing within that four-game cushion last season.

This year, spots 7-10 in the West are separated by just three games. The New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are just 2.5 games out of 10th place, but both teams are fading and need to go on big hot streaks quickly to close that gap. 

Current matchups would feature the San Antonio Spurs playing the Dallas Mavericks for seventh place, with the loser facing the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies winner for eighth place. 

Those games would certainly feature a high level of intrigue – the Spurs have a Hall of Fame coach and arguably the deepest collection of guards in the league; the Mavericks have an MVP candidate in Luka Doncic and the experience of taking the favored Clippers to six games last season; the Warriors still have two-time MVP Steph Curry and All-Star Draymond Green around; and the Grizzlies can rely on last year’s experience of just barely missing the playoffs to try and break through this season.

With approximately 30 games left for most teams, nothing is set in stone, but the West standings don’t seem like they’ll fluctuate much between now and the end of the season, barring injuries. Expect some jockeying to occur, but these teams should all factor into the play-in scenario this season and create fun pre-playoff matchups.

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