The NBA play-in tournament helped add more intrigue to the end of the regular season as teams jockeyed for position in the standings with more meaningful implications than ever before. Now the play-in tournament is here, with four teams in each conference vying for the final two playoff seeds in the East and the West.
The teams currently slotted No. 7 and No. 8 in each conference will have two chances to punch their ticket to the playoffs, while the teams sitting at No. 9 and No. 10 will face elimination games immediately. The winner of the 7-8 matchup earns the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, and the loser has to play the winner of the 9-10 matchup for the No. 8 seed.
Eastern Conference games will take place on Tuesday and Thursday. Western Conference games take place on Wednesday and Friday. The playoffs start in full on May 22.
Before the first ever NBA play-in tournament begins, let’s run through each matchup and give predictions on who we think will win.
No. 10 Charlotte Hornets at No. 9 Indiana Pacers play-in game prediction and preview
The Charlotte Hornets only had to win one of their last five games to get the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and earn a little more margin for error in the play-in tournament. Instead, Charlotte ended the season on a five-game losing streak and slipped to the No. 10 seed, and now must go on the road to face the Indiana Pacers in a win-or-go-home scenario for both teams.
Both teams are dealing with significant injuries. The Pacers won’t have center Myles Turner or scoring wing T.J. Warren, while veteran point guard Malcolm Brogdon is a game-time decision with a hamstring injury. The Hornets will be without Gordon Hayward for the 25th straight game as he recovers from a foot injury.
Brogdon’s status may decide the outcome. The Pacers thrive off the two-man game of Brogdon and star big man Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis is coming off his second straight All-Star appearance and has been electric in May so far. Over the last eight games, Sabonis is averaging a triple-double by putting up 22.8 points, 11.4 assists, and 13.9 rebounds per game on 61.5 percent shooting from the field. If Brogdon can’t go, the burden will fall on Caris LeVert to create offense with the ball in his hands. (update: LeVert has been ruled out)
The Hornets will rely on Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball to create offense. Ball is coming off a broken wrist that was supposed to end his season, but he returned for the final stretch of the regular season. The Rookie of the Year favorite hasn’t been as dynamic post-injury, but his playmaking ability could pose major problems for Indy. Rozier will need to carry the scoring load after putting up a career-best 20.4 points per game this season. Big man P.J. Washington is the X-factor for a Charlotte team that will need several supplemental scorers to step up if they want to win.
No. 8 Washington Wizards at No. 7 Boston Celtics play-in game prediction and preview
The Wizards’ climb to the No. 8 seed has been the best story in the league to end the regular season. Washington sat at 17-32 overall in early April. The team was decimated by Covid during the winter, and Russell Westbrook struggled early as he reportedly played through a torn quad. As Westbrook got healthy, the Wizards took off, winning 17 of their final 23 games to end the year and give themselves more margin for error in the play-in tournament by grabbing the 8-seed.
The Celtics have been headed in the opposite direction to end the season, losing 10 of their final 15 games entering the play-in. Boston’s biggest loss came when star wing Jaylen Brown needed season-ending wrist surgery after May 2, a devastating injury for a 24-year-old who had been enjoying a breakout year.
The swing factor in this game might be the status of Bradley Beal. Beal has been one of the league’s greatest scorers all season, finishing second to Stephen Curry for the scoring title by averaging 31.3 points per game. Unfortunately, Beal suffered a hamstring injury late in the season and hasn’t looked as explosive as he usually is since returning. The Wizards beat the Hornets on the final day of the regular season anyway as Beal went off for 25 points.
Jayson Tatum will have to be the best player on the floor if Boston is going to win. Since the All-Star break, Tatum is averaging 27.8 points per game on 40 percent three-point shooting on eight attempts per game, a stretch that included a 60-point effort in a wild comeback win over the Spurs about two weeks ago.
For as great as the Wizards have been lately, Beal’s injury presents a major problem in this matchup. The good news for the loser is that they still have a chance to qualify for the playoffs by beating the winner of Pacers-Hornets.
No. 10 San Antonio Spurs at No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies prediction and preview
The Grizzlies are back in the play-in after losing to the Portland Trail Blazers last year as the league experimented with the idea in the bubble. The Grizzlies have had a difficult year with a Covid outbreak in January and the prolonged absence of big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who didn’t make his season debut until April 21 as he recovered from a knee injury. Somehow, Memphis still finished 38-34 mostly thanks to its depth and a terrific defense that ended the year as the seventh-best in the NBA.
The Spurs enter the play-in after free-falling in the standings over the last month by losing 10 of their last 12 games. The loss of guard Derrick White to a season-ending ankle injury as coincided with San Antonio’s struggles. The Spurs will look to veteran wing DeMar DeRozan to carry the offense. The 31-year-old averaged more than 20 points per game for the eighth straight season. He remains a reluctant and shaky three-point shooter, but DeRozan has remade himself as a skilled facilitator by posting a career-best 32 percent assist rate this season. The Spurs will likely need a big performance from either point guard Dejounte Murray or wing Lonnie Walker to add supplemental scoring punch against a tough Memphis defense.
Ja Morant remains the headliner for Memphis, but his second season hasn’t been quite as good as many expected. Morant’s scoring efficiency slipped (53.7 percent true shooting) as defenses have gone under every screen and dared him to shoot from the outside. Morant has only hit 30.3 percent of his threes this season.
Even if legendary Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has a game plan to slow down Morant, Memphis still has other options who can pick them up. Dillon Brooks has led the team in scoring over the last 15 games. Young guards Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton also have the potential to go off for Memphis. The battle in the middle between two big, strong centers — San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl and Memphis’ Jonas Valanciunas — might be the most fun matchup of the game.
No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers at No. 8 Golden State Warriors prediction and preview
Will there be a game the rest of the playoffs that does better ratings than Lakers vs. Warriors? The NBA couldn’t have imagined a better scenario for the debut of the play-in tournament than LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry with a playoff spot on the line.
The Lakers are only here because of injuries. Los Angeles won the NBA championship in the bubble last season, and entered this year as the favorites to repeat. Then Anthony Davis and LeBron James missed large chunks of the season with injuries. The health of the Lakers’ two superstars is biggest question in the league heading into the playoffs. Davis played at an incredibly high level in the bubble, but hasn’t looked as dynamic this season as he’s recovered from a calf injury. James said he’d never be 100 percent again after suffering an ankle injury. If both stars can be at their best, the Lakers still have a great chance to repeat as champs despite needing to go through the play-in just to qualify for the postseason.
There’s no doubt the Lakers are a better team than the Warriors, but Curry’s brilliance gives the Warriors a chance in a single-game scenario. Curry enjoyed a vintage season at age-33 by winning the scoring title and establishing himself as the possible runner-up for MVP. He is truly in a league of his own as a shooter, hitting double-digit three-pointers seven times this year. Curry will again have Draymond Green by his side. The veteran big man isn’t much of a scoring threat these days — he only averaged seven points per game this season — but he remains an elite defender and an impeccable passer.
The Warriors have been a different team since rookie center James Wiseman suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Warriors have won 14 of their last 19 games since Wiseman’s injury, and enter the play-in tournament on a six-game winning streak.
If anyone can slow down Curry, it’s the Lakers. LA ended the season with the league’s No. 1 defense. While they don’t have an ideal individual matchup for Curry, they do have some long and physical defenders who could make life difficult for him. James’ skill as a ‘free safety’ style help defender is the glue that holds the Lakers together.
The Warriors will need someone other than Curry and Green to step up, with Andrew Wiggins as the most likely candidate. The Warriors look like a totally different team over the last month, but they have less margin for error than LA. As long as James and Davis look like themselves, the Lakers should win.