The Fight for the Play-In Tournament

I don’t need to tell basketball fans this, because they already know it: thus far, the restart of the NBA has been an absolute success.

The games have been compelling, full of awesome individual and team performances and an intense playoff race.

When the NBA was figuring out how many teams to bring to Orlando, plans ranged from including 16 to 24 teams. If it were 16, the playoffs likely would have started right away, while 20-24 teams would have seeding type games.

“A number of different ideas have surfaced… all the reporting with the scuttlebutt that I’ve heard leads me to believe there will be at least 16 teams… and that the league might have interest in some kind of play-in tournament with 20 or 24 teams.”

John Hollinger, The Athletic (May 28)

The final choice was 22 teams, with all playoff teams as of March 11, and an extra team from the East (Washington), and 5 extra teams from the West (New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Portland). Each non-playoff team invited had a chance to make the playoffs within the 8-game seeding window, and although Washington has done so bad they actually have a worse win percentage than Charlotte – a team not in Orlando – a war has taken place to earn the final playoff spot in the West.

Sacramento and New Orleans have been eliminated from playoff contention, meaning the race for the 8th seed has come down to Memphis, Portland, Phoenix and San Antonio.

There is a new wrinkle to the playoff race this season: a play-in “tournament” that will take place between the 8th and 9th seed after the season ends.

How does it work, and which teams are best positioned to make it to the tournament?

Lets explore.

What is a Play-In Tournament?

An idea that surely pleased Bill Simmons, the NBA decided to implement a play-in component for the 8th seed in each conference with the return of games.

Here’s how it works: after all seeding games have been played, if the 9th seed team is less than 4 games behind the 8th seeded team in their respective conference (based on winning percentage), a play-in tournament will ensue. In order for the 9th seeded team to advance to the First Round, they must win 2 games against the 8th seeded team. For the 8th seed  to advance to the First Round, they must beat the 9th seed team once. This means if the 8th seed wins the first game between the two, the 9th seed is eliminated immediately. If the 8th seed loses the first game, whoever wins the second game advances.

In summary, the 8th seed advances with only one win (meaning they can lose the first game and still advance if they win Game 2), while the 9th seed must beat the 8th seed twice to advance.

The Race to Make It

Derrick White has been excellent in Orlando, averaging 20.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.8 SPG, 0.8 SPG and 0.7 BPG (Credit: Sports Illustrated)

In the Eastern Conference, none of this matters, as Washington (the only non-playoff Eastern Conference team in Orlando) has lost every game they’ve played since returning, guaranteeing they will be more than 4 games behind the 8th seed by the end of the season.

In the Western Conference, we are guaranteed to see a play-in tournament.

8. Memphis Grizzlies, 33-38 (.465) —

Games left: Boston (today), Milwaukee (Thursday)

9. Portland Trail Blazers, 33-39 (.458) (0.5 GB)

Games left: Dallas (today), Brooklyn (Thursday)

10. Phoenix Suns, 32-39 (.451) (1 GB)

Games left: Philadelphia (today), Dallas (Thursday)

11. San Antonio Spurs, 31-38 (.449) (1 GB)

Games left: Houston (today), Utah (Thursday)

Each team above has two games left to play, all to be played on Tuesday and Thursday.

These 4 teams have played six games in The Bubble thus far, some doing better than others.

The outlier is Memphis, as the Grizzlies have gone 1-5 thus far. Memphis held a 3.5 game lead for the 8th seed prior to the restart, but that lead has almost vanished in Orlando.

Portland has gone 4-2 in The Bubble, closing in on Memphis behind the stellar play of Damian Lillard, who is averaging 33 PPG in Orlando.

The Phoenix Suns have been the story of The Bubble thus far by going 6-0 (only undefeated team in Orlando), putting themselves right into the middle of this intense race. The Suns were 6 games behind Memphis and 2.5 games behind Portland prior to the restart, but have made up 5 games on the Grizzlies and 2 games on the Trail Blazers the past 11 days.

The Spurs have also gone 4-2 in The Bubble, passing New Orleans and Sacramento to pull within 1 game for the 8th seed while standing 0.5 games behind Portland. Although the Spurs are 1 game back of Memphis like the Suns, the Suns are ahead of the Spurs due to having a higher winning percentage (.002 more to be exact). Since not all teams will play the same amount of games this season, winning percentage in a situation like this would put the Suns ahead of the Spurs in the final standings.

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The Grizzlies have the easiest path to making the play-in tournament (Credit: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

With one game separating all four teams and two games left on to the schedule for each team, any combination of the four teams remaining could finish 8th or 9th in the West.

Memphis and Portland control their own destiny, as two more wins by each clinch them the 8th and 9th seeds respectively. If Memphis wins just one more game, they’ll make the play-in tournament at minimum.

Phoenix can earn the 8th seed if the following things happen:

  1. PHX wins final two games
  2. MEM loses final two games
  3. POR loses one game

The Spurs need a bit more help to earn the 8th seed, but it would go as follows:

  1. SA wins final two games
  2. MEM loses final two games
  3. POR loses one game
  4. PHX loses one game

If the Suns win their final two games, at least one Portland loss OR two Memphis losses would earn Phoenix the 9th seed.

If the Spurs win their final two games, Phoenix AND Portland would need to lose at least one game, OR Memphis would need to lose two games AND one of Phoenix and Portland would need to lose a game in order to earn the 9th seed.

If the Spurs go 1-1 in their final 2 games, the only way they can earn the 9th seed is if Phoenix AND Portland go 0-2 in their final 2 games.

If the Suns go 1-1 in their final 2 games, the only way they can earn the 9th seed is if the Spurs lose at least once AND Portland loses their final 2 games.

If the Suns and Spurs lose their final 2 games, they’re out no matter what.

There’s a few other scenarios (like SA wins out while everyone loses out, earning SA the 8th seed), but the ones discussed above are most likely.

The current standings reflect the reverse difficulty of reaching the play-in game, meaning Memphis has the easiest path, while the Spurs have the hardest.

What Matchup am I Rooting For?

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Devin Booker and Damian Lillard have been two of the best players in Orlando (Credit: Explica)

This one’s easy: Suns-Trail Blazers.

I love Damian Lillard, and love the story of the Phoenix Suns.

The Spurs are boring, and although they seem to have found an interesting formula by playing DeMar DeRozan at the 4 and using three guard lineups, it’s not as appealing as Phoenix and Portland.

The Grizzlies have been one of the worst teams in The Bubble. They’re up-and-coming, and I’m excited to see Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr in the years ahead. but with Jackson Jr out, they can’t do much of anything right now. This isn’t their year, and even if they got the 8th seed and two chances at moving on, the only team I’d give them a chance of beating once are the Spurs.

In order for this dream match to happen, the Grizzlies must lose their final two games AND Phoenix must win their final two games. The Trail Blazers would then either have to win two more times, OR win once with the Spurs losing at least once.

As Jim Carrey would say, there is a chance.

A Suns-Trail Blazers play-in would all but surely be intense, giving us one great game at minimum, and hopefully two. It would also guarantee a fun First Round series, as the winner would face the Lakers.

If the Suns make it, they would be on a 9- or 10-game winning streak in Orlando, as hot as any team in the NBA. Portland would not be doing THAT good (could enter having won 6 of their last 7 games), but they’ve fared well against the Lakers this season, and their roster is much stronger than their current place in the standings due to the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.

Phoenix versus Portland would be compelling to say the least.

When Would It Go Down?

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Court being used in Orlando for the NBA Restart (Credit: Basketball Forever)

Game 1 of the play-in tournament will take place on Saturday, and if there is a Game 2, it will be on Sunday.

We don’t have any times for the games yet, but I would assume each would be in the primetime window both nights (hopefully with enough of a turnaround between Game 1 and a hypothetical Game 2 to give each team a few extra hours of rest).


Top image from Yahoo! Sports

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Author: Nick Collins

Boston sports fan sharing his love for sports and perspectives as a fan

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