How the new NBA play-in tournament works, and whom you could see in it

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How does the NBA play-in tournament work and which teams will participate during the 2020-21 season?

The league first tested the play-in round during the 2020 NBA restart in Orlando, Florida, with the Portland Trail Blazers topping the Memphis Grizzlies to get the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. In November, the NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a plan to institute a new version of the play-in on a one-year basis.

The play-in adds a fascinating wrinkle to the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. Teams were already less incentivized to tank games down the stretch because of the flattened lottery odds instituted in 2019. Now that the top 10 teams in the standings will finish the regular season with at least a chance to make the playoffs, more franchises will stay in the mix for longer. Some people, such as Dallas Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic and team owner Mark Cuban, are less than thrilled about the prospect of the play-in tournament, but we should expect some heated contests as teams push to make it into — or above — the play-in fray.

Here’s everything you need to know about the play-in setup this season, including how it works, when and where it’s happening, and the most likely matchups, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI).


When is the NBA play-in tournament?

The last day of the NBA regular season is scheduled for May 16. The play-in will begin May 18 and end May 21, with the first round of the NBA playoffs tipping off May 22.


How does the NBA play-in tournament work?

There will be six total games involving eight teams as part of the play-in tournament, split up between the two conferences.

The teams that finish Nos. 1-6 in each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots, while team Nos. 7-10 in the standings will enter the play-in. Any team that finishes worse than No. 10 will be in the lottery. Since there is a chance for teams to finish with an uneven number of games played because of COVID-19 complications, the NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings.

Here’s how the games will work:

  • Game 1: The No. 7 team in the standings by winning percentage will host the No. 8 team, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The losing team gets another chance in Game 3.

  • Game 2: The No. 9 team will host the No. 10 team, with the winner moving on to Game 3. The loser is eliminated and enters the NBA draft lottery.

  • Game 3: The loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup will host the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup, with the victor grabbing the No. 8 seed in the postseason. The loser of Game 3 also enters the lottery.

This means that the teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages will have two opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot, while the teams with the ninth-highest and 10th-highest winning percentages need to win two straight games to advance.

How important is seeding within the play-in race?


Which teams are projected to make the NBA play-in tournament?

If the season ended today, the matchups would be:

Western Conference

Eastern Conference

MORE: Current NBA standings

And here are the most likely participants in each conference, via projections using BPI, which factors in injuries, strength of schedule and the on-court impact of each rotation player.

Most likely to make West Game 1 (No. 7 vs. No. 8)

Most likely to make West Game 2 (No. 9 vs. No. 10)

Most likely to make East Game 1 (No. 7 vs. No. 8)

Most likely to make East Game 2 (No. 9 vs. No. 10)


Thursday’s games to watch

Chicago Bulls at Charlotte Hornets, 7 p.m. ET

Charlotte is 2½ games back of Miami for the seventh seed and is ahead of the Pacers and Wizards by 2 and 2½ games, respectively. Charlotte got a boost with LaMelo Ball returning to the lineup. He’s averaging 16.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 block per game since rejoining the team. — Andrew Lopez

Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors, 7:30 p.m. ET

With a win, the Wizards could do serious damage to the Raptors’ remaining play-in hopes. Washington leads Toronto by three games with six to play for each team. The Raptors own the series edge, but coming back from four games down with five to go would be quite the task. — Lopez

Memphis Grizzlies at Detroit Pistons, 8 p.m. ET

The Grizzlies are in eighth thanks to Ja Morant‘s 37 points and 10 assists against Minnesota on Tuesday. Now the Grizzlies have to take care of business against the rebuilding Pistons to continue holding off Golden State. — Ohm Youngmisuk

Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers, 8 p.m. ET

Indiana has a half-game edge on the Wizards for the ninth spot but has some catching up to do if it wants to get to Charlotte. Atlanta is still playing for home-court advantage in the East and is motivated to not let up against the Pacers. — Lopez

Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors, 10 p.m. ET

The Warriors open the first of two consecutive games against Oklahoma City at home, as they must take advantage of this sweet spot in the schedule while they battle for the eighth spot. Golden State has Utah, Phoenix, New Orleans and Memphis remaining after facing the Thunder. — Youngmisuk

Los Angeles Lakers at LA Clippers, 10 p.m. ET (TNT)

The Clippers look to sweep the season series against their hallway neighbors, who will be without LeBron James and Dennis Schroder. The Clippers are battling the Nuggets for third in the West, while the Lakers are looking to stay out of the play-in as they try to get healthy for the playoffs. Neither team likely will show a lot against each other strategically with a potential first-round meeting between the two L.A. teams looming as a possibility. — Youngmisuk

MORE: Thursday’s full scoreboard


Play-in matchups we can’t wait to see

When we polled ESPN’s NBA experts, here were their picks for the most exciting potential play-in matchups:

Tim MacMahon: Sign me up for all the Stephen Curry vs. Luka Doncic games I can get. I was in attendance at the American Airlines Center on Feb. 6, which might have been the most entertaining game so far this season, featuring Curry and Doncic combining for 99 points in a 134-132 shootout the Mavs won. The Warriors and Mavs might not be real contenders right now, but Golden State could be a first-round matchup problem if healthy.

Bobby Marks: Luka against Steph in the Western Conference. A win-or-go-home game featuring two All-NBA guards would be the highlight of the play-in tournament.

Royce Young: Heat vs. Celtics would be a pretty dramatic play-in matchup. Two Eastern Conference heavy hitters, both trying to correct a disappointing season and become a dangerous playoff team. But one has to go home with the shame of ending a disappointing season with no upside. It’s probably the matchup with the most at stake.

Kevin Arnovitz: Warriors vs. Lakers. This iteration of the Lakers has never played an elimination game. A LeBron James-Steph Curry showdown in a do-or-die scenario would be high drama.

Jerry Bembry: Boston vs. Miami. Before the season, many people would have had the Celtics and Heat among the top 10 teams in the league. The combo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in Boston represented the NBA’s future, and the Heat were coming off an incredible run to the Finals. No one could have imagined both teams hovering around the seven/eight spots in the East.



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