A change that the NBA made during its COVID-19 pandemic-disrupted 2019-20 season has stuck around and seems to be gaining popularity. The play-in tournament at the end of the season gives two teams in each conference that would otherwise be Draft Lottery-bound an opportunity to play their way into the playoffs.
In two previous tournaments, the play-in tournament has been fun but hasn’t resulted in much disruption. Zero No. 9 or 10 seeds have successfully played their way into a spot.
The tournament has been fun for fans, but has had mixed reactions from players. Last season, LeBron James of the Lakers famously bristled at having to secure their playoff spot in the tournament. This season, though, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant was friendlier toward the idea.
“Who cares?,” Durant said when asked about the tournament, according to Sports Illustrated. “I don’t care who we play. I don’t care that we’re in the play-in. Tip the ball up.”
This year’s play-in tournament does feature some upset potential, though. The No. 9 seed in the East is the Atlanta Hawks, a team that made the Eastern Conference Finals last season and closed the season on a hot streak. The West also features a team that played well in the second half of the season in New Orleans. Here is a look at each conference’s tournament scenarios and who we predict will grab the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the East and West.
The matchups in the East open with No. 7 Brooklyn playing No. 8 Cleveland on Tuesday and No. 9 Atlanta playing No. 10 Charlotte on Wednesday. The winner of the Cleveland-Brooklyn game automatically gets the No. 7 seed and the loser plays the winner of Atlanta-Charlotte on Thursday for the No. 8 seed.
Brooklyn and Cleveland enter their matchup both likely lamenting the fact that they’re in the play-in tournament. The Nets entered the season as a potential title contender. But an injury to Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving’s inability to play in home games much of the season due to his vaccination status, James Harden forcing a trade, and the primary player acquired for him, Ben Simmons, being unable to play due to injury have the Nets’ playoff prospects in question.
Cleveland before the season would’ve likely been thrilled at the idea of making the play-in tournament. But after they spent much of the season as one of the most surprising teams in the league, injuries derailed them over the past two months. The Cavs did get rookie Evan Mobley back from injury late in the season, and there’s a chance Jarrett Allen could return for the play-in tournament. If Allen rejoins the lineup, their game against the Nets should be much more competitive. The Nets won two of three matchups in the regular season.
The Hawks-Hornets matchup should be fun to watch for scoring purposes – they’re both among the highest scoring (and poorest defensively) teams in the league. The point guard matchup will likely be the focal point, with LaMelo Ball and Trae Young serving as two of the most dynamic young guards in the league. Young has been on a tear the second half of the season, making nearly 40 percent of his threes since February. He’s also had Atlanta playing well, with a 14-8 record since March 1. The teams split four regular season matchups.
PREDICTION: Brooklyn should dispatch Cleveland to clinch the No. 7 seed. Look for Atlanta to beat Charlotte and then pull off a mild upset over the Cavs to grab the No. 8 seed in the East.
The matchups in the West open with No. 7 Minnesota playing the No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday and No. 9 New Orleans playing No. 10 San Antonio on Wednesday. The winner of the Clippers-Minnesota game automatically gets the No. 7 seed and the loser plays the winner of New Orleans-San Antonio on Thursday for the No. 8 seed.
The Clippers are perhaps the most intriguing team in the postseason. After surprisingly staying in the playoff race despite stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George being out much of the season, Los Angeles added George to their overachieving lineup late in the season. They also got some more offense and versatility when Norman Powell returned from an injury. And, there are still rumors that a Leonard return is not out of the question.
Leonard most certainly won’t be back in time for the play-in tournament, but his potential return could give the experienced Clippers a little extra motivation against a young Minnesota team. Karl-Anthony Towns should pose a massive challenge inside for the undersized Clippers, though. The Clippers won three of four against Minnesota in the regular season.
The Spurs, kind of by default, ended up as the No. 10 seed. San Antonio would no doubt like to be thinking about what young piece they add in the draft rather than thinking about being first-round fodder for Phoenix. But because the Lakers shut down their stars in a lost season, the Spurs eked into this spot. New Orleans has been above .500 since January and added a great player in CJ McCollum at the trade deadline, so they seem intent on making a full push for a playoff spot. The Pelicans won two of three games against the Spurs this season.
PREDICTION: In a mild upset, the Clippers should grab the No. 7 seed from Minnesota based on George’s health and their strong play against the Wolves in previous matchups. Minnesota won’t fall completely out of the playoffs, though. Expect the Wolves to secure the No. 8 seed by beating New Orleans after the Pelicans beat San Antonio.