NBA Playoff Picture 2021: Reviewing Latest Bracket Scenarios for East, West

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMay 1, 2021

Miami Heat forward Trevor Ariza, left, drives to the basket as San Antonio Spurs forward DeMar DeRozan (10) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The NBA playoffs are starting a bit late this season, as they won't get underway until May 22. The regular season ends May 16, and this year, there will be some games between those dates.

That's because the league has modified its postseason format, meaning the teams in the Nos. 7-10 seeds in each conference will be participating in a play-in tournament. Two teams from the East and two from the West will use that to capture the final four berths in the first round of the playoffs.

Some teams won't have to worry about the play-in tournament, though. There are four that have already clinched spots in the playoffs this season: the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers in the East and the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz in the West.

Here's a look at the NBA playoff picture as the regular season winds down.


Eastern Conference

Top Six Seeds

1. Brooklyn Nets (43-21, clinched playoff berth)

2. Philadelphia 76ers (42-21, clinched playoff berth)

3. Milwaukee Bucks (39-24)

4. New York Knicks (35-28)

5. Atlanta Hawks (34-30)

6. Boston Celtics (34-30)


Play-In Tournament

Game 1: No. 8 Charlotte Hornets (30-32) at No. 7 Miami Heat (33-30)

Game 2: No. 10 Washington Wizards (29-34) at No. 9 Indiana Pacers (29-33)

Game 3: Game 2 winner at Game 1 loser

The battles for the Nos. 5 and 6 seeds are going to be vital. The Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are all separated by only a half-game, but one of them may end up having to participate in the play-in tournament as the No. 7 seed.

Of course, there's time for all three to move up the standings. The New York Knicks aren't safe and could drop into the play-in tournament themselves.

But Miami has played much better of late after struggling early in the season, winning five of its past seven games. If the Heat can keep things trending in the right direction, they could secure a spot in the first round of the playoffs without having to go through the play-in tournament.

"We don't want to be in that," Miami guard Goran Dragic said, per Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald. "We want to be safe and play hopefully at home. That's our goal. ... If we can avoid that play-in tournament, that would be a huge deal for us."

Since rebranding as the Hornets prior to the 2014-15 season, Charlotte has only made it to the playoffs once (2016). And it hasn't won a postseason series during that span. But the Hornets are in a good position to at least make the play-in tournament and then have an opportunity to build some momentum and finally experience some playoff success.

The Washington Wizards are playing their best basketball of the season, and that's put them in position to reach the play-in tournament. They may not have time to make it into the top six in the East, but they are a talented team with a strong backcourt (Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal) that could make some noise in the postseason, should they get there.

The Wizards have won 12 of their past 14 games after starting the season 17-32.


Western Conference

Top Six Seeds

1. Phoenix Suns (45-18, clinched playoff berth)

2. Utah Jazz (45-18, clinched playoff berth)

3. Los Angeles Clippers (43-21)

4. Denver Nuggets (42-21)

5. Los Angeles Lakers (36-27)

6. Dallas Mavericks (35-27)


Play-In Tournament

Game 1: No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies (32-30) at No. 7 Portland Trail Blazers (35-28)

Game 2: No. 10 Golden State Warriors (31-32) at No. 9 San Antonio Spurs (31-31)

Game 3: Game 2 winner at Game 1 loser

Last year's NBA playoffs didn't have a full play-in tournament. But as the season resumed in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, there was a Western Conference play-in game added, and that was a matchup featuring the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies.

Coincidentally, the Trail Blazers and Grizzlies could be matched up in a similar type of game this year. It's still possible for seedings to change, but should these teams face off, it would be an exciting matchup. In last year's play-in game, Portland defeated Memphis 126-122 in a meeting that went down to the wire.

The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors were perennial postseason contenders in the West in recent seasons before both missing the playoffs last year. But there's a chance both will be in the play-in tournament this season.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr recently told reporters that his team is already treating the final stretch of the regular season like playoff games. And considering they boast players with a wealth of postseason experience (such as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green), they could end up making a late-season push.

Golden State has a three-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the No. 10 seed, but it may need to pick things up soon to hold on to that spot. The Warriors have lost two games in a row and four of their past seven.

There's still the potential for a shakeup throughout the West standings, though. Even the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are only one game ahead of the Trail Blazers, so even L.A. could be forced to participate in the play-in tournament.