NBA Playoffs 2021: Explaining Play-in Format, Seedings and More

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMay 18, 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Explaining Play-in Format, Seedings and More

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    When the NBA announced its new play-in tournament format for the 2020-21 season, it was clear that the extra games would bring additional excitement.

    But few could have predicted the star power that will be on the court for these must-win contests between the regular season and the opening round of the playoffs.

    In the Western Conference, there's the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are the No. 7 seed. And they'll be playing the No. 8-seeded Golden State Warriors, powered by Stephen Curry.

    In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics fell to the No. 7 seed, and they'll have to face the No. 8-seeded Washington Wizards, who have triple-double machine Russell Westbrook anchoring their lineup.

    The winners of these No. 7 vs. No. 8 games will advance to the first round of the playoffs to face the No. 2 seed in their respective conferences. Meanwhile, the losers will play the winners of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 games. In those final matchups, the losers will be eliminated while the winners will advance to face the No. 1 seeds in the opening round.

    The losers of the initial No. 9 vs. No. 10 games are automatically eliminated.

    Here's the play-in tournament schedule, followed by more on the eight teams that are participating.

Play-in Tournament Schedule

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Tuesday, May 18

    No. 10 Charlotte Hornets at No. 9 Indiana Pacers, 6:30 p.m. ET, TNT

    No. 8 Washington Wizards at No. 7 Boston Celtics, 9 p.m. ET, TNT


    Wednesday, May 19

    No. 10 San Antonio at No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

    No. 8 Golden State Warriors at No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN


    Thursday, May 20

    Winner of Charlotte/Indiana at Loser of Washington/Boston, 8 p.m. ET, TNT


    Friday, May 21

    Winner of San Antonio/Memphis at Loser of Golden State/Los Angeles, TBD, ESPN

Eastern Conference Outlook

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics have reached the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four seasons (including in 2020). If they're going to get back there this year—and try to get back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010—their path will be a bit longer.

    First, Boston must make it out of the play-in tournament, and that won't be an easy task. It faces No. 8-seeded Washington on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to play the No. 2-seeded Brooklyn Nets in the first round.

    The Wizards will be a difficult opponent, though, as they've won 15 of their past 20 games and have the talented backcourt of Westbrook and Bradley Beal leading the way.

    If the Celtics can't get past them, they'd have to face whichever team wins the game between the No. 9 Pacers and No. 10 Hornets, who are both capable of making a run. And the winner of that final Eastern Conference game will go on to face the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.

    At one point, it seemed unlikely Boston would be here. But it lost 10 of its final 15 regular-season games, allowing the New York Knicks (No. 4), Atlanta Hawks (No. 5) and Miami Heat (No. 6) to secure spots in the first round of the playoffs.

    "Obviously, it's a place where we didn't expect ourselves to be, but we're here. So we've got to deal with it and deal with what's in front of us," Celtics guard Marcus Smart said, per Kyle Hightower of the Associated Press. "It's 0-0. Everybody gets an opportunity to start over. ... We've got to go out there and take advantage of it."

    Meanwhile, Washington has been battling its way up the standings after losing 12 of its first 15 games this season. Even a week ago, the Wizards were sitting in No. 10, barely holding onto a play-in tournament berth.

    However, back-to-back wins over Cleveland and Charlotte to close out the regular season moved Washington up to No. 8 and only one win away from the playoffs.

    "These last X-number of games have been like playoff games," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, per Hightower. "That prepares you."

    Two of these four play-in teams will be heading to the first round, but the 76ers and Nets lie in wait and will be challenging opponents to open the postseason.

Western Conference Outlook

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    James' Lakers vs. Curry's Warriors: The winner advances to the playoffs, while the loser is left to face a must-win elimination game or its season is over. It doesn't get much more intriguing than this.

    Los Angeles tried its best for this not to happen. It won its final five games of the regular season, with James and Davis returning from injuries in the last week to try to power the Lakers into the first round of the playoffs. But the Dallas Mavericks (No. 5) and Portland Trail Blazers (No. 6) staved off the challenge.

    Now, the NBA champions must host Golden State. And while this marks a bounce-back year for the Warriors, who went a league-worst 15-50 in 2020, they still have some of the key players who led them to five straight NBA Finals appearances from 2015-19, a period in which they won three NBA titles.

    "They've got championship DNA as well," James said, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "They've been there. They know what it takes and what it feels like to be in pressure games."

    The winner of the Warriors-Lakers game will go on to face the No. 2-seeded Phoenix Suns, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2010.

    Whichever team wins the Memphis-San Antonio matchup is going to have its hands full with either Los Angeles or Golden State looking to avoid elimination. The Spurs kept the No. 10 seed despite losing 10 of their final 12 regular-season games. The Grizzlies recently went on a five-game winning streak, but that ended with a loss to the Warriors in the regular-season finale.

    The loser of that final Western Conference play-in game will go on to face the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the first round. That will be a tough series, as Utah was consistently strong while going an NBA-best 52-20 during the regular season.

    But first, James and Curry face off in a matchup that has the potential to be the best game of the play-in tournament.

    "You're talking about two of the greatest players of all time," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per Reynolds. "Both guys are still playing at such an elite level. And of course, four meetings in the Finals is going to create a rivalry. But there's obviously tremendous mutual respect between the two of them."

    However, there's a strong chance that the Lakers and Warriors will both be in the first round of the playoffs when these play-in contests end.


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