The NBA implemented the play-in game to create excitement, make more games meaningful and curtail tanking.
With just two days left in the regular season, the intrigue surrounding the play-in format has drawn more attention than the race for the No. 1 seed, buoyed by the prospect of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers needing to win a play-in game to make the playoffs.
In short, the seventh- and eighth-place teams in both conferences aren’t guaranteed a playoff spot. The league has given the ninth- and 10th-place teams a shot at reaching the playoffs.
Here’s how it works and who might end up in the play-in game format.
After the regular season concludes, the seventh- and eighth-place teams play each other and the winner earns the No. 7 seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of the 9-10 game. The winner of that game becomes the No. 8 seed. To give the teams that had a better record during the regular season an advantage, teams 7-8 need to win just one play-in game to advance and teams 9-10 need to win two games.
The play-in games are May 18-21 with the 16-team, best-of-7 playoffs beginning May 22, with the East 10th-place team vs. the East 9th-place team and the East 8th-place team vs. the Boston Celtics.
In the East, the picture is a bit more clear than in the West, though tiebreakers convolute the scenarios.
Boston, Charlotte, Indiana and Washington are in spots 7-10 right now with Chicago lurking in 11th place. The top six seeds in the East are set, so none of these teams can finish above No. 7.
The Celtics secured seventh place in the East because Charlotte lost to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Pacers lost to Milwaukee on Thursday. Even if the Celtics lose out and the Hornets, Pacers or Wizards win out and all four teams finish with 35-37 records, the Celtics own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the three teams.
Celtics’ remaining games: at Minnesota, at New York Knicks
Though Charlotte and Indiana have identical records and each have two games remaining, the Hornets are in eighth place because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Charlotte does not have it easy the rest of the way, playing teams who are jostling for playoff or play-in positions. Indiana doesn’t have a cakewalk either. But at the very least, the Hornets and Pacers have locked up a spot in the play-in game.
The Wizards are in the play-in game after their win against Cleveland on Friday, eliminating Chicago from the postseason.
Now, the Wizards are looking to move up as high as eighth place. If Washington win its final game against Charlotte and the Pacers and Hornets lose out, the Wizards can grab the No. 8 seed. If all three teams finish with identical records, the Hornets would finish eighth, the Wizards ninth and the Pacers 10th based on head-to-head tiebreakers. Charlotte can lock up eighth place if it wins out, and the Pacers can finish ninth with two victories. Washington owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against Indiana.
Hornets’ remaining games: at New York Knicks, at Washington Wizards
Pacers’ remaining games: vs. Los Angeles Lakers, at Toronto
Wizards’ remaining games: vs. Charlotte
In the West, the seventh-place Lakers, who are still waiting for LeBron James to return, still have a chance to move into the sixth or fifth spot, but they need help. At 40-30, they are a ½ game behind 41-30 Portland.
Dallas escaped the play-in game with its victory over Toronto on Friday. Even if the 42-39 Mavs finish with the same record as the Lakers, they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Mavs will be either the the fifth or sixth seed.
The Blazers own the tiebreaker against the Lakers, so for the Lakers to avoid the play-in game, they would need to win their two remaining games and Portland would have to lose their remaining game. If it’s the Lakers in the seventh spot, they could face eighth-place Golden State in a tantalizing play-in game.
Lakers’ remaining games: at Indiana, at New Orleans
Mavericks’ remaining games: at Minnesota
Blazers’ remaining games: vs. Denver
The Warriors don’t have eighth place in their possession just yet. At 38-33, Memphis is a ½ game ahead of Golden State for that spot after the Grizzlies defeated Sacramento on Friday. Eighth place will come down to the final game of the season when the Warriors and Grizzlies. If both teams finish with the same record, the Warriors own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Warriors’ remaining games: vs. New Orleans, vs. Memphis
Grizzlies’ remaining games: at Golden State
San Antonio will finish in 10th place because Sacramento lost to Memphis on Thursday, eliminating the Kings from a play-in game possibility. The Spurs can’t catch Golden State or Memphis for eighth or ninth place.
Spurs’ remaining games: vs. Phoenix, vs. Phoenix