The NBA Play-In Tournament: How does it work?

The NBA Play-In Tournament: How does it work?



With 20 teams still competing for a ticket to the NBA Finals, the NBA postseason is quickly approaching following an exhausting 82-game regular season.

However, a few things must still happen before the playoffs start in earnest: in order to determine which teams, finish in the bottom half of each conference bracket, four teams must be eliminated and sent on summer break.

The NBA Play-In Tournament fills that need.

The Play-In Tournament might seem like a strange idea to those who have not been following the NBA closely in the past few years. Even among the many passionate fans of basketball, there is still a little confusion.

Explain the Play-In Tournament’s purpose and what it is?

At 2020, a season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw more than half of the league locked up at Walt Disney World in what became known as the NBA Bubble, teams competed until the conclusion of the season in a move to qualify for the postseason for the first time.

In a desperate attempt to save its season, the NBA offered 22 teams to Orlando, Florida. Before the season began with a shortened schedule, teams played a few tune-up games. With only 16 teams advanced to the postseason, however, the league had to find a method to allow those outsiders to make the kind of late-season run they would have had the season hadn’t been postponed months earlier.

The NBA Play-In Tournament
The NBA Play-In Tournament

This format was very different from the current version and ended with a single match determining the final placing of the play-offs. The Bubble Season concluded with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in front of family members, media and league officials, as well as millions of fans watching at home.

The following season the NBA adopted the Play-In tournament format, which has continued ever since.

The NBA created the tournament to give middle-of-the-pack clubs more time to rise
up and secure a postseason berth, so ensuring that games remain competitive the whole season. As a result, the tournament had the extra benefit of deterring some teams from “tanking,” or playing for half the season in order to increase their chances of winning the NBA Draft Lottery.

The NBA discovered that teams were playing a more serious second half of the season in an attempt to improve their rankings and either qualify for the tournament or avoid it completely, because there were now 20 teams competing for the playoffs as opposed to only 16.

Now, how does the tournament for play-ins operate?

There are eight teams in each of the two conferences that make up the NBA—East and West—that compete in the playoffs for a chance to join the NBA Finals.

Depending on how well a club performed during the regular season, each conference playoff bracket has a seeding of 1 through 8.

The victorious teams move on to the next round to play the other teams’ winners in a best-of-seven series. The champion will finally pit the victorious teams from both conferences against one another.

All eight of the league’s best teams were guaranteed participation in the conference playoffs before the Play-In Tournament.

With 10 clubs continuing to play after the regular season ends, things are a little different now.

The worst four teams from each conference, ranked seventh through tenth, compete in their own Play-In Tournament. Two teams will qualify for the NBA Playoffs by winning their respective tournaments.

In the Play-In format, instead of the top seed playing the bottom seed as in other sports tournament forms, the highest seed, No. 7, plays the No. 8 seed, and the lowest seed, No. 9, plays the No. 10 seed.

The Play-In Tournament’s upper half looks like this:

Western Conference: #7 New Orleans Pelicans vs. #8 Los Angeles Lakers
#7 Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat #8 in the Eastern Conference
The No. 7 seed in the relevant conference’s NBA Playoffs is automatically awarded to the victor of that match.

On the other hand, the loser remains in the game, but now needs to face the winner of the event bracket’s bottom half, which is as follows:

Western Conference: #9 Sacramento Kings vs. #10 Golden State Warriors
Atlanta Hawks against. Chicago Bulls, ranked #10 in the Eastern Conference
The team that loses the matchup between the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds is out of the postseason picture and may begin organizing their summer getaway.

Yet, the No. 8 seed is up for grabs when the winners of this series play the loser of the last series in a win-or-go-home match.

The NBA Playoffs may start as soon as those games are over and the final seeding are announced.

The winner of this game advances to the playoffs, while the loser has an opportunity to qualify by winning the next match they play. In addition to this game, the Warriors of Golden State will participate in the tournament. To qualify for the playoffs, they must win two consecutive games. At the same time, the Miami Heat are looking to duplicate their incredible path to the NBA Finals, which they accomplished last year after winning the Play-In Tournament.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans will play off in the NBA Play-In Tournament on Tuesday.


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