Everything You Need to Know About the NBA Play-In Tournament

The NBA's latest wrinkle debuts Tuesday. What can we expect from the inaugural Play-In Tournament? Here's what you need to know, plus predictions.

Steph Curry LeBron James Staples Center 2021
USA Today Sports

Steph Curry LeBron James Staples Center 2021

Steph Curry LeBron James Staples Center 2021

Whether you love or loathe the concept of the Play-In Tournament—I tend to side with LeBron James on this one—the NBA’s new wrinkle debuts Tuesday and hopefully it delivers some desired drama.

Featuring the two most successful franchises in NBA history, a pint-sized scoring champ having a career year, the polarizing triple-double king, the likely Rookie of the Year, last season’s Rookie of the Year, a team in turmoil, and a Spurs squad led by Gregg Popovich who’s rocking a biker’s mane these days, the Play-In Tournament, as Stefon from Saturday Night Live would say, has everything. Plus, the stakes are pretty high. Four out of the eight teams will officially earn inclusion into the 2021 NBA Playoffs while the other teams can start their summer as soon as Thursday.

If you’re still unfamiliar with how the Play-In Tournament works, here goes: We’re playing to determine the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in each conference. The 7th and 8th seeded teams play each other, winner earns the 7th seed. The 9th and 10th seeds play each other, winner moves on to play the loser of the 7-8 matchup. Winner of that game earns the 8th seed. 

Got it? Good. Now here’s what you need to know, what you can expect from Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s games, plus some necessary predictions before the regular ol’ playoffs—like we’re all used to with seven-game series from the first-round through the NBA Finals—tip Saturday. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. And if these games are duds, know that LeBron will not hesitate to remind everyone he was right.

Eastern Conference

Pacers/Hornets winner plays Celtics/Wizards loser Thursday for right to be the No. 8 seed.

No. 9 Pacers vs. No. 10 Hornets

Devote' Graham Hornets Pacers 2021

No. 7 Celtics vs. No. 8 Wizards

Bradley Beal Celtics Wizards Boston 2021

TV: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET, TNT

Spread: Celtics -2

How the Celtics advance: Is Larry Bird walking through that door? Boston’s been brutal all season long, struggling to string along consistent performances and painfully underachieved. The idea that the Celtics will just flip a switch now that it’s technically the postseason (but not really) sounds like something only your cousin from Boston six Sam Adams would say. Losers of 10 of their final 15 games, it kind of feels like the Celtics need a superstar effort out of Jayson Tatum to have a chance in this one since Jaylen Brown is done for the season and you just never know what to expect from the supporting cast. Sure, Kemba Walker started acting like the old Kemba for a four-game stretch (before sitting out the final three games) and Evan Fournier finally showed why the Celtics traded for him at the deadline. Tatum absolutely needs points in bunches from those two, but really this comes down to whether Boston has the bodies to stop Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. For my money, they don’t.  

How the Wizards advance: Let DC’s dynamic duo cook. The Wizards dropped two of three to the Celtics during the regular-season, but one of those happened to be a 1-point loss back in late February and Washington’s been playing consistently better basketball during the season’s final few months, having won 17 of their final 23 games. Beal went beast mode on Boston in the three matchups, averaging 39.3 points per game and we’ve all watched Westbrook morph into prime Russ to drag this Wizards squad into position to steal a playoff spot after their abysmal start to the season. This is going to sound overly simplistic, but if Beal and Westbrook get their numbers the Celtics are screwed. Boston was fifth in adjusted defensive rating last year. This season, Boston finished 15th and enter the Play-In Tournament without one of their top perimeter defenders.

Predictions: Wizards over Celtics, Hornets over Pacers, Hornets over Celtics

Western Conference

Grizzlies/Spurs winner plays Lakers/Warriors loser Friday for right to be No. 8 seed.

No. 9 Grizzlies vs. No. 10 Spurs

DeMar DeRozan Dillon Brooks Spurs Grizzlies 2021

No. 7 Lakers vs. No. 8 Warriors

Steph Curry Warriors Lakers Bench Chase Center 2021

TV: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN

Spread: Lakers -7

How the Lakers advance: Show up with AD and LeBron? Seriously, if the Lakers have a moderately healthy and operational LeBron James (he tweaked his ankle in the regular-season finale) and Anthony Davis then the Warriors basically have a snowball’s chance in Hell of pulling off the upset. Sure, I’ll give you that it’s not inconceivable to picture Golden State eeking out a win here, but it feels improbable. Led by the NBA’s leading scorer in Steph Curry, we all know the Warriors lack the manpower and size to really push the Lakers in a series. One-game scenarios are different, of course, but it’s hard to bet against LeBron in a postseason-like setting where he’s proven he can flip the switch. Even if the Lakers somehow lose this game, they still get a crack at the winner of Grizzlies-Spurs—incredibly easy prey—so take it to the bank the defending champs will make the playoffs. We’re really just waiting to find out whether they get the Jazz or Suns in the first-round.  

How the Warriors advance: Steph goes for 82? The severely undermanned and out-gunned Warriors will need a superhuman effort out of their point guard. That or hope the Lakers are really, really rusty having barely played with each other over the season’s final few months and/or LeBron’s extra gimpy. Seriously, those feel like the only non-batshit-crazy scenarios in which Golden State pulls off the upset at Staples Center. We could see LA struggling to get into rhythm since LeBron’s missed so much time, Dennis Schröder only recently returned after a two-week COVID absence, Andre Drummond’s still new, and Frank Vogel will unleash his condensed playoff rotations. If LA’s shots aren’t falling and Curry starts cooking, the Warriors earning the 7th seed is conceivable. I would just advise against betting on it.    

Predictions: Lakers over Warriors, Grizzlies over Spurs, Warriors over Grizzlies

Latest in Sports