B/R NBA Staff: Complete 2021 Play-in Tournament Predictions

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2021

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, left, pressures Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Associated Press

The 2020-21 NBA regular season is a wrap. 

And yet, we won't know the final postseason seedings until the new play-in tournament concludes on Friday—one day before the playoffs officially begin on Saturday, May 22. 

Below is a breakdown of each play-in series, complete with predictions from our NBA writers on which teams will advance. 

Read until the end to see who we think earns the final seven and eight seeds in each conference, then hit the comments in the B/R app to share your picks for each spot. 

Eastern Conference: No. 7 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

As the seventh-seeded Celtics prepare to host the eighth-seeded Wizards, both clubs might have the same question: How did we get here?

Boston was an Eastern Conference finalist three of the past four seasons and won seven playoff series over that stretch. But this campaign took one turbulent turn after the next, finishing with a closing stretch in which the Shamrocks lost Jaylen Brown for the season to a torn ligament in his left wrist and dropped nine of their final 13 games.

Washington, on the other hand, was coming off consecutive campaigns with sub-.400 winning percentages and seemed destined to continue the slide as it held a 17-32 mark on April 5. But the Wizards went a blistering 17-6 from that point forward with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook forming a two-headed monster that bludgeoned opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions over that stretch.

The Celtics have home-court advantage on their side. The Wizards have momentum on theirs. Both follow the lead of St. Louis natives and long-time friends, Beal and Jayson Tatum. Westbrook and his counterpart, Kemba Walker, are former All-Star point guards who were highly scrutinized at times this season but played their best ball down the stretch.

In a way, the franchise are fun-house mirror reflections of one another. That kind of setup almost always produces great basketball.

Zach Buckley


  • Buckley: Wizards
  • Swartz: Wizards
  • Pincus: Wizards
  • Highkin: Celtics
  • Bailey: Wizards

B/R Predicts: Washington Wizards advance, earn East's No. 7 seed

Eastern Conference: No. 9 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 10 Charlotte Hornets

Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

The battle for the final spot in the East playoffs will feature two squads both missing key pieces.

The Indiana Pacers will continue to be without all-world defensive center Myles Turner, who hasn't played since early April with turf toe. The Charlotte Hornets likely won't have Gordon Hayward, the team's second-leading scorer at 19.6 points per game, due to a foot sprain.

So, who's left?

LaMelo Ball made his return to the court for Charlotte this month, but he hasn't looked like the same player coming off wrist surgery. In nine games he's averaged just 14.7 points on 39.2 percent shooting overall and 24.3 percent from three. The Hornets do still have Terry Rozier (career-high 20.4 points per game this season), a veteran of over 50 previous playoff games.

Indiana is led by Domantas Sabonis, who just joined Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Kevin Garnett as the only players in history to average at least 20 points, 12 rebounds and six assists per game over a full season. The 25-year-old power forward/center has been especially hot as of late, averaging a triple-double for the month of May. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who missed the final 10 games of the season with a hamstring injury, is expected to play.

While the Pacers were a major disappointment this season, they've at least shown a pulse this month.

Charlotte has dropped five straight games to end the season, are 3-7 overall in May and have the league's 23rd-ranked net rating this month (minus-5.2).

While Indiana has only been slightly better at 5-5, a plus-4.9 net rating in May is actually the 10th-best in the NBA.

Greg Swartz


  • Buckley: Pacers
  • Swartz: Pacers
  • Pincus: Pacers
  • Highkin: Hornets
  • Bailey: Pacers

B/R Predicts: Indiana Pacers advance to play Boston Celtics in East's Play-In Final

Western Conference: No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Golden State Warriors

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

If you can pick one player to win a single game by himself, it might be Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. He's the hurdle the Los Angeles Lakers face after an injury-plagued season that saw LeBron James suffering what appeared to be a sprained ankle in the final game of the regular season (a 110-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans). The Warriors are at a severe size disadvantage against Los Angeles with Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond, but big men can often become an afterthought when Curry goes supernova.

The Lakers have several defensive guards to throw at Curry, including Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso. If the Lakers can just keep Curry near his 32-point regular-season average, the Warriors would be vulnerable.

Easier said than done.

Meanwhile, Golden State finished the season with a top-5 defensive rating (109.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) but 20th on offense (110.5). The Lakers were the best defensive team by that metric (106.9) but were 24th offensively (109.8), hampered by long absences from James and Davis. That could be a problem for Los Angeles if James is limited after Sunday's apparent ankle tweak.

Eric Pincus


  • Buckley: Lakers
  • Swartz: Lakers
  • Pincus: Lakers
  • Highkin: Warriors
  • Bailey: Lakers

B/R Predicts: Los Angeles Lakers advance, earn West's No. 7 seed

Western Conference: No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 10 San Antonio Spurs

Darren Abate/Associated Press

For the second year in a row, the Grizzlies are well ahead of schedule for where most thought they would be.

Last year in the bubble, they lost Jaren Jackson Jr. to a knee injury that kept him out most of this season. Now, Jackson and the rest of Memphis' key players are fully healthy, and Ja Morant has a real chance to get the Grizzlies into the playoffs and cement his status as one of the NBA's most exciting next-generation superstars.

This isn't the most exciting matchup for casual fans, but there are some interesting similarities between these two teams. Both have perennially underappreciated centers (Jonas Valanciunas for the Grizz, Jakob Poeltl for the Spurs) and a bevy of intriguing young guards and wings.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in over two decades last summer, the Spurs have the chance to re-establish their relevance, while Morant looks to have his first defining big-stage moment of his young career.

Sean Highkin


  • Buckley: Grizzlies
  • Swartz: Grizzlies
  • Pincus: Grizzlies
  • Highkin: Grizzlies
  • Bailey: Grizzlies

B/R Predicts: Memphis Grizzlies advance, play Golden State Warriors in West's Play-In Final

Easter Conference Play-In Final: Boston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Without Brown, the weight of the Celtics' offense rests almost entirely on Tatum's shoulders and the surgically repaired knee of Walker. And in the limited time Boston's been in this situation, the results haven't been great.

Still, whether Brown's around or not, Tatum is capable of scoring outputs worthy of his organization's historical luster.

Against the banged-up Pacers, the Celtics may have just enough firepower to advance. Fully healthy or not, Walker will put pressure on a group devoid of All-Defense level perimeter stoppers. Tatum can pile up points. If Evan Fournier gets hot from the outside, Boston has a shot.

Indiana won't just lay down for the Celtics, though. Brogdon, who was day-to-day and missed Sunday's game, should be back for the play-in tournament. Winning that individual matchup with Kemba is far from out of the question.

And Boston may not have an answer in the frontcourt for Sabonis, who's been putting up his own historical lines lately. Robert Williams has the physical tools, but he does much of his damage inside. Sabonis' ability to create from anywhere on the floor gives the Pacers' occasional Nuggets vibes. If Caris LeVert or Doug McDermott get rolling off the ball, the Pacers could push the Celtics to the brink.

Andy Bailey


  • Buckley: Celtics
  • Swartz: Celtics
  • Pincus: Celtics
  • Highkin: Celtics
  • Bailey: Pacers

B/R Predicts: Celtics advance, earn East's No. 8 seed

Western Conference Play-In Final: Golden State Warriors vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

If Golden State fails to secure its playoff spot with a win over James and the Lakers, we may be in line for some We Believe-era Warriors magic. And a motivated Curry is tough to imagine losing.

Since the All-Star break, Curry has put up a staggering 34.9 points, 6.0 threes and 5.1 assists while shooting 43.1 percent from three.

Combine that with an under-the-radar throwback season from Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins' improved three-and-D game and the solid defense provided by the supporting cast, and we might be able to peg the Warriors as favorites.

But that doesn't mean there's no argument for the Grizzlies. Memphis is young and hasn't been hardened by playoff battles, but there's depth on this roster, with 12 players contributing positive value over replacement player this season.

There are plenty of bodies to throw at Curry, including De'Anthony Melton. And though they won't stop him, they'll at least make him work. Jackson and Brandon Clarke can similarly pester Draymond. After that, it's up to the Grizzlies to dominate the rest of the Warriors, and that's not an impossible task.

Morant's outside shot has been more reliable in May, and Valanciunas is capable of bullying anyone. Timely contributions from a few others could keep this close.



  • Buckley: Warriors
  • Swartz: Warriors
  • Pincus: Warriors
  • Highkin: Warriors
  • Bailey: Warriors

B/R Predicts: Warriors advance, earn West's No. 8 seed


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