Welcome to NBA Play-In Tournament week!
After 72 regular-season games, four teams from each conference will battle for two playoff spots this week. The tournament was introduced to add another layer of excitement to the regular season and accomplished its goal for the most part. Thanks to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers falling to the seventh seed in the West after prolonged absences from LeBron James and Anthony Davis, teams spent the final weekend of the regular season losing games to avoid them for as long as possible in the playoffs.
Before we dive into the matchups, here’s how the play-in works: the seventh seed will host the eighth seed in each conference, with the winner securing the seventh seed and advancing to the playoffs proper. Meanwhile, the winner of the ninth seed versus the 10th seed will play the loser of the first matchup for the eighth seed. Another way to look at it: the seventh and eighth seed have two chances to make the playoffs, the ninth and 10th seed have to win two games to make it.
Here are the matchups we know of so far:
(7) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Washington Wizards - Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
The Celtics followed up their conference finals appearance with a disappointing regular season and now have to win a home game to earn the right to face the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Boston will be without star forward Jaylen Brown, who is out for the season with a torn ligament in his left wrist.
If you believe in momentum, the Wizards are your pick. They went 15-5 in their final 20 games and are led by Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double this season (22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.8 assists) and Bradley Beal, who finished second in the league in scoring (31.4 points per game).
(9) Indiana Pacers vs. (10) Charlotte Hornets - Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. ET
The Indiana Pacers have been fighting themselves of late but will have home-court advantage against the Charlotte Hornets. Nate Bjorkgren’s squad will be led by Domantas Sabonis, who averaged 20.2 points, 11.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists this season and put up triple-doubles at a Westbrook-level pace to end the season, and point guard Malcolm Brogdon (21.2 points and 5.9 assists).
They’ll be up against one of the best stories of the 2020-21 regular season. The Hornets are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and haven’t won a postseason series since 2002 when Baron Davis led them to the second round. This time around, Charlotte will be led by Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball, along with Terry Rozier. Gordon Hayward has a sprained right foot and is unlikely to play this week. Seven players on the Hornets roster averaged double digits this season.
Eastern Conference predictions: The Wizards upset the Celtics to clinch the seventh spot, setting up a Kevin Durant vs. Westbrook first-round matchup; the Hornets beat the Pacers but lose to the Celtics, who will claim the eighth and final spot and face the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1.
(7) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Golden State Warriors - Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET
The marquee matchup of the week will take place on Wednesday at Staples Center. No seventh seed has ever won the championship, so get the narratives ready for the Los Angeles Lakers. James and Davis will need to beat the Warriors at home to claim the seventh seed. If not, they will have another home game on Friday against the No. 9 vs. No. 10 winner. Not to look too far ahead, but if the Lakers win, they will face the Phoenix Suns in the first round, and should they advance, they will play either Denver or Portland. That is hardly the most challenging path, especially when you consider home-court advantage is nullified due to half-capacity crowds (if that) at arenas. Also: the Lakers have LeBron.
This game will put the “Steph Curry is the one player you don’t want to see in an elimination game” theory to test. Technically, both teams have two shots at making the playoffs, but Lakers fans have to be at least concerned about what Curry can do in the play-in tournament format. He’s put together an all-time season, leading the league in scoring (31.8 points per game), becoming the first NBA player to do so after the age of 33 since Michael Jordan.
(9) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs - Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET
The undercard in the West has plenty of intrigue too. The Grizzlies appeared on their way to a playoff spot as the eighth seed last season before the pandemic. When the season resumed, they found themselves in a play-in against the Portland Trail Blazers, needing to win two games against them after falling to ninth, and lost 126-122 in the first game, ending their season. Memphis faces the same scenario again this season, needing a home win against the Spurs followed by a road win against the loser of Lakers-Warriors. Ja Morant, who had 35 points in the play-in game last season against Portland, will be looking for some redemption.
The Spurs saw their 22-year playoff streak end last season in the bubble and will need two road wins to earn the eighth seed. This will be a chance for a national audience to get a glimpse of Dejounte Murray, but also two former Raptors—DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl.
Western conference predictions: The Lakers hold off the Warriors at home and earn a first-round matchup against Phoenix as the seventh seed; the Grizzlies beat the Spurs but lose to the Warriors, who will face the Utah Jazz in the first round as the eighth seed.
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