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The NBA play-in tournament rules and format, explained

This is everything you need to know about the NBA play-in tournament.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA couldn’t have planned the debut of the play-in tournament any better. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will face Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors for the rights to the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The loser still has a chance to qualify for the postseason by beating the winner of the Grizzlies-Spurs game.

The play-in tournament has been a controversial idea since it was announced, but there’s no denying it made the end of the regular season more competitive. After experimenting with a ‘play-in’ game at the bubble last season, the NBA expanded the idea to determine the last two seeds in the playoffs in each conference. It will conclude on May 21, just one day before the start of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

The top eight teams in each conference have historically qualified for the NBA playoffs, but not anymore. Now the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds need to earn their way into the postseason via the play-in tournament, while the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds will also have a chance to crash the playoff party.

NBA play-in tournament rules

  • The No. 7 seed will face the No. 8 seed in each conference. The winner of that game becomes the No. 7 seed in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
  • The No. 9 seed faces the No. 10 seed in each conference. The loser of that game is eliminated from playoff contention and will be in the lottery.
  • The loser of the 7-8 game then plays the winner of the 9-10 game for the No. 8 and final seed in the playoffs.

Here’s a graphic explaining how the tournament works, via NBA.com:

2021 NBA play-in tournament matchups and schedule

First round Eastern Conference games will be played on May 18. First round Western Conference will be played on May 19. The final spot in the East will be decided on May 20, while the final spot in the West will be decided on May 21.

No. 7 Boston Celtics 118, No. 8 Washington Wizards 100: Boston gets No. 7 seed in East and faces No. 2 seed Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs. Washington faces the Indiana Pacers for the eighth and final playoff seed.

No. 9 Indiana Pacers 144, No. 10 Charlotte Hornets 117: Pacers advance to face Wizards. Winner gets the No. 8 seed in the East. Loser is eliminated.

No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers 103, No. 8 Golden State Warriors 100: The Lakers get No. 7 seed in West and faces No. 2 seed Phoenix Suns. The Warriors face the No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff seed.

No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies 100, No. 10 San Antonio Spurs 96: Memphis advances to face the Warriors. Loser is eliminated.


No. 8 Washington Wizards 142, No. 9 Indiana Pacers 115: The Wizards secure the No. 8 spot in the East after Thursday night’s victory.

No. 8 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies: The eighth spot in the West will be decided on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET.

Have any more questions on the play-in tournament? We will try to answer them here.

Why is the NBA doing a play-in tournament?

The league wanted to make the end of the regular season more meaningful while also creating a ‘Game 7’ atmosphere with early elimination games heading into the playoffs. The play-in tournament was also seen as a way to deter tanking.

The introduction of the play-in tournament has unquestionably created more drama during the final stretch of the regular season. The No. 6 seed has now become a hotly contested battle in each conference as teams try to avoid needing to qualify for the playoffs through the play-in tournament. The No. 7 and No. 8 seeds have also become contested because it provides more margin for error in the play-in tournament that the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds don’t have as they face an elimination game to start the tournament.

What are the projected matchups for the NBA play-in tournament?

You can find updated standings here, plus projected matchups for the play-in tournament and NBA playoffs.

LeBron James and Mark Cuban have criticized the play-in tournament

James’ ankle injury has put the Lakers in jeopardy of needing to go through the play-in tournament to qualify for the playoffs. James has gone on the record saying he doesn’t the idea of the play-in tournament.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has also been critical of the play-in tournament. Here’s what he told ESPN earlier this year:

“The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top 6 since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous. So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.”

“In hindsight, this approach was an enormous mistake,” Cuban told ESPN.

Will teams that lose in the play-in tournament be in the lottery?

Yes. The teams that qualify for the play-in tournament but fail to reach the playoffs will be included in the NBA draft lottery. You can find full odds for every spot in the lottery at Tankathon.

When does the NBA play-in tournament begin?

The play-in tournament begins on May 18 and concludes on May 21. Here’s the full schedule.

When do the 2021 NBA Playoffs begin?

The playoffs begin on May 22. Game 7 of the 2021 NBA Finals is scheduled for July 22, if necessary.