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How does the NBA play-in work?

The coronavirus pandemic brought a lot of damage financially to different sports in the world. NBA was no exception as the regular season was halted for almost 6 months. On March 12th, 2020, the regular season was interupted after Rudy Gobert tested positive for Caronavirus. Given the financial and historical implications of not finishing the season, the NBA sought innovation. The Orlando Bubble was formed to host a shortened end to the NBA regular season and the playoffs. One of the innovations would widen the chances of lower seeded teams to make the playoffs, to make up for the shortened season. Potentially the 8th and 9th seeded teams in each conference could play off for the final 2 playoff spots. The 9th seed would need to finish less than 4 games back from the 8th seed to force a play in. The 9th seed would need to then beat the 8th seed twice, while the 8th seed would only have to win once. The Wizards would finish 7 games behind the 8th seeded Orlando Magic in the east, missing out. The West play in would be won by the 8th seeded Portland Trail Blazers in 1 game. This earned them the right to get thrashed by the eventual Champions The Lakers in the first round.

Before the start of the 2020/2021 season, the NBA decided to come up with a different format. The main reason was both the late start and the search for innovations and to build on the good feeling Bubble innovations, like the play in games had created amongst fans. In normal times, a regular season begins at the end of October. Amid the pandemic the 2020-21 season would start in December and be shortned by 10 games, to 72. A tweeked version of the NBA Bubble Play-in would be introduced in order to mitigate the impact of the shortened season, increase the amount of games and boost viwer engagement with Live NBA games. In this article, we will have a look at the new tournament and find out what are the pros and cons of this new format.

Portland Trail Blazer, Memphis Grizzles Play-In Game 1 - Sports Loud
Lillard and Morant faced off in the 2020 NBA Play-in Game for the final West Playoff Spot

What is the 2021 NBA play-in tournament?

NBA management was in favor of maintaining the playoff format for the 2020/2021 season. This format was first tested during the 2019/2020 season in the Bubble in Orlando, Florida.

Club owners and the players’ union were discussing the adoption of a new, truncated calendar for 70-72 matches, and play-in was considered an integral part of it. The league believes that such a format can bring the NBA additional income and is promising from a financial point of view.

In the previous seasons, fans of the NBA will remember that 8 top teams from both conferences were playing against each other. The bottom 7 were automatically excluded from participating in the playoffs. However, before the start of the season, the NBA officially confirmed that a play-in tournament will be held at the end of the regular season. This play-in tournament will determine the seventh and eighth places in the playoffs in each conference. The scheduled time for conducting this playoff tournament is from May 18 to 21, 2021. After that, the first round of the playoffs will tip-off on May 22, 2021.

How does the 2021 NBA Play-in tournament work?

The first 6 places in both conferences will automatically secure their regular spot in the playoffs, with no changes or alterations to seeding process.

In each conference the team, ranked seventh, will host the eighth-placed team in a single game winner takes all. The winner of this match will receive the seventh seeding in the playoffs.

At the same time the team, which took ninth place, will play a single game winner takes all against the tenth seeded team. The loser of this match is elimated from playoff contention. The winner of this 9 vs10 match will compete for the last place in the playoffs against the losing team from the 7 vs 8 match above.

This means that the teams finishing in the regular Playoff spots (7 & 8) will only have to win 1 game to qualify for the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The teams finishing in spots 9 & 10 and would usually already be eliminated from contention, will have to win 2 out of 2 games to qualify for the Playoffs.

FAQ: NBA Play-In Tournament |

Are there opponents of 2021 NBA Play-in format?

Of course, innovations are often met with critics and this format is no exception. The most obvious critic of the play-in tournament is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban who called this move a “huge mistake” considering the season’s tight schedule. We should also point out that the season was already shortened to 72 games from 82. Cubans star player, Luka Doncic, also voiced his discontent with the idea of a play-in tournament.

Doncic especially criticized the fact, that almost every game should be considered as a playoff game because you need to put a lot of effort into going to the decisive part of the season. Players are more “loaded” and the tensions are high.

It should be pointed out that currently the Dallas Mavericks who have been hit very hard by injury and health protocal restrictions this season, look set to have to make the Playoffs by winning in the Play-in game from the 7th or 8th seed. It is unclear if Mark Cuban expressed the same opinions when he voted to allow the play-in tournament at the start of the season when he expected his Mavericks to be challenging for a home court seed, not battling for a play-in spot.

It is difficult not to agree with them because players are forced to fully exhaust them in every game. Playing behind closed doors is another negative factor because, with the crowd absent, players’ motivation also decreases at some point.

The bottom line is that single game winner takes all stakes will ALWAYS draw eyeballs from all over the globe. It’s sure to be a massive cash cow for all involved.

Mark Cuban Backs Luka Doncic In Minnesota Lynx Twitter Controversy
Cuban and Doncic eyeing a run at the 2021 NBA Title

Which teams are likely to feature in the 2021 NBA Play-in tournament?

From the current perspective, it is a difficult question to answer, because the competition is so close. The Western Conference, compared to its Eastern counterpart has more teams fighting for the playoffs spot, thus determining the possible pairs here is tough. Even the Los Angeles Lakers, considering the injuries of LeBron Jame and Anthony Davis, alongside the Denver Nuggets, might be forced to work more, in order not to appear in the play-in. The Warriors and Spurs are probably going to participate in this tournament.

In the Eastern Conference, however, we already have some opinions about who will go directly in the playoffs. The Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers are likely to earn the respective first and second places. Previous season’s NBA Finals participants, the Miami Heat, should be alert because they are one of the main candidates for playing additional games to secure a spot in the post-season.

Will the NBA Play-in tournament continue in the future years?

Depending on how it will go this year, the format is likely to go on in the future seasons. Financially it is going to benefit the league a lot. There will always be opponents of such ideas, but overall, the innovation will bring certain advantages and more hype. One of the NBA’s main goals at the moment is to arrest a percieved slide in live game viewing figures.