How does the NBA play-in tournament work? Dates, projections and rules explained

How does the NBA play-in tournament work and which teams will participate during the 2020-21 season?

The league first tested the play-in round during the 2020 NBA restart in Orlando, Florida, with the Portland Trail Blazers topping the Memphis Grizzlies to get the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. In November, the NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a plan to institute a new version of the play-in on a one-year basis.

The play-in adds a fascinating wrinkle to the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. Teams were already less incentivized to tank games down the stretch because of the flattened lottery odds instituted in 2019. Now that the top 10 teams in the standings will finish the regular season with at least a chance to make the playoffs, more franchises will stay in the mix for longer. Some people, such as Dallas Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic and team owner Mark Cuban, are less than thrilled about the prospect of the play-in tournament, but we should expect some heated contests as teams push to make it into — or above — the play-in fray.

Here’s everything you need to know about the play-in setup this season, including how it works, when and where it’s happening, and the most likely matchups, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI).

When is the NBA play-in tournament?

The last day of the NBA regular season is scheduled for May 16. The play-in will begin May 18 and end May 21, with the first round of the NBA playoffs tipping off May 22.

How does the NBA play-in tournament work?

There will be six total games involving eight teams as part of the play-in tournament, split up between the two conferences.

The teams that finish Nos. 1-6 in each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots, while team Nos. 7-10 in the standings will enter the play-in. Any team that finishes worse than No. 10 will be in the lottery. Since there is a chance for teams to finish with an uneven number of games played because of COVID-19 complications, the NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings.

Here’s how the games will work:

  • Game 1: The No. 7 team in the standings by winning percentage will host the No. 8 team, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The losing team gets another chance in Game 3.
  • Game 2: The No. 9 team will host the No. 10 team, with the winner moving on to Game 3. The loser is eliminated and enters the NBA draft lottery.
  • Game 3: The loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup will host the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup, with the victor grabbing the No. 8 seed in the postseason. The loser of Game 3 also enters the lottery.

This means that the teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages will have two opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot, while the teams with the ninth-highest and 10th-highest winning percentages need to win two straight games to advance.

Which teams are projected to make the NBA play-in tournament?

If the season ended today, the matchups would be:

Western Conference

  • Memphis Grizzlies (No. 8) at Portland Trail Blazers (No. 7)
  • San Antonio Spurs (No. 10) at Golden State Warriors (No. 9)

Eastern Conference

  • Charlotte Hornets (No. 8) at Miami Heat (No. 7)
  • Washington Wizards (No. 10) at Indiana Pacers (No. 9)

And here are the most likely participants in each conference, via projections using BPI, which factors in injuries, strength of schedule and the on-court impact of each rotation player.

Most likely to make West Game 1 (No. 7 vs. No. 8)

  • Golden State Warriors: 75.8%
  • Portland Trail Blazers: 51.4%
  • Los Angeles Lakers: 31.1%
  • Memphis Grizzlies: 23.6%
  • Dallas Mavericks: 17.3%

Most likely to make West Game 2 (No. 9 vs. No. 10)

  • Memphis Grizzlies: 72.6%
  • San Antonio Spurs: 51.1%
  • New Orleans Pelicans: 30.1%
  • Golden State Warriors: 24.1%
  • Sacramento Kings: 21.8%

Most likely to make East Game 1 (No. 7 vs. No. 8)

  • Charlotte Hornets: 82.7%
  • Miami Heat: 43.6%
  • New York Knicks: 28.7%
  • Boston Celtics: 22.9%
  • Indiana Pacers: 10.8%
  • Atlanta Hawks: 5.7%
  • Washington Wizards: 5.6%

Most likely to make East Game 2 (No. 9 vs. No. 10)

  • Indiana Pacers: 81.0%
  • Washington Wizards: 77.5%
  • Toronto Raptors: 21.6%
  • Charlotte Hornets: 16.2%
  • Chicago Bulls: 3.6%

Thursday’s games to watch

New Orleans Pelicans at Philadelphia 76ers, 7 p.m. ET

The Pelicans continue their push to catch the San Antonio Spurs for the 10th spot but will have to do so without All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, who suffered a low left ankle sprain on Tuesday against the Warriors. Ingram has been ruled out for Friday’s contest but the Pelicans say he is day-to-day moving forward. — Andrew Lopez

Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls, 7:30 p.m. ET 

Boston is currently up in the standings over Miami for the sixth seed, but the two teams will meet on Sunday and Tuesday. Before the Celtics get there, they’ll have to take on the Bulls who are 3½ back of the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference play-in race. — Lopez

Orlando Magic at Charlotte Hornets, 8 p.m. ET

The Hornets stumbled on Thursday against the Bulls and will look to bounce back against the Magic. Charlotte fell three games behind the Heat for the seventh seed but they maintained a one-game lead on the Pacers for eighth, trying to give themselves two shots at making the playoffs instead of one. — Lopez

Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat, 8 p.m. ET

Since falling to Minnesota on April 16, the Heat have won seven of their last 10 games. After the Timberwolves, they’ve dropped their last two in close games to New Orleans and Memphis. Miami would like to get the win in order to set themselves up in better position for a crucial back-to-back series against the Celtics starting Sunday. — Lopez

Cleveland Cavaliers at Dallas Mavericks, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Mavericks are a game up on the Lakers and Portland for the fifth seed as they try to avoid the play-in tournament altogether. They’ll get a great opportunity to grab a win against Cleveland, who has lost a league-high eight consecutive games. — Lopez

Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)

This game is arguably the most important in the play-in race. The teams are tied with 37-29 records and they have split the two games they’ve played so far this year. The winner will be in the driver’s seat for the sixth seed while they also pick up the tiebreaker in the season series. — Lopez

San Antonio Spurs at Sacramento Kings, 10 p.m. ET

Only Cleveland has lost more games in a row than the Spurs, who have seen their lead for the 10th seed dwindle down to just 1½ games over the Pelicans. The Kings are the only one of the Spurs’ final seven opponents who are below .500. — Lopez

Play-in matchups we can’t wait to see

When we polled ESPN’s NBA experts, here were their picks for the most exciting potential play-in matchups:

Tim MacMahon: Sign me up for all the Stephen Curry vs. Luka Doncic games I can get. I was in attendance at the American Airlines Center on Feb. 6, which might have been the most entertaining game so far this season, featuring Curry and Doncic combining for 99 points in a 134-132 shootout the Mavs won. The Warriors and Mavs might not be real contenders right now, but Golden State could be a first-round matchup problem if healthy.

Bobby Marks: Luka against Steph in the Western Conference. A win-or-go-home game featuring two All-NBA guards would be the highlight of the play-in tournament.

Royce Young: Heat vs. Celtics would be a pretty dramatic play-in matchup. Two Eastern Conference heavy hitters, both trying to correct a disappointing season and become a dangerous playoff team. But one has to go home with the shame of ending a disappointing season with no upside. It’s probably the matchup with the most at stake.

Kevin Arnovitz: Warriors vs. Lakers. This iteration of the Lakers has never played an elimination game. A LeBron James-Steph Curry showdown in a do-or-die scenario would be high drama.

Jerry Bembry: Boston vs. Miami. Before the season, many people would have had the Celtics and Heat among the top 10 teams in the league. The combo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in Boston represented the NBA’s future, and the Heat were coming off an incredible run to the Finals. No one could have imagined both teams hovering around the seven/eight spots in the East.

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