NBA play-in and playoff preview
🏀 How it works
Now in its third year in its current format, the anxiety-inducing and enthralling play-in tournamentgives the seventh- through 10th-seeded teams in both the Eastern Conference (EC) and Western Conference (WC) a chance to, well, play their way into the final two playoff spots (the seventh and eighth seeds).
- The top six teams in each conference have already clinched playoff spots, but the rest will duke it out to punch their ticket.
To start, the No. 7 seeds face the No. 8 seeds while the No. 9 seeds take on the No. 10 seeds. The winner of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup clinches the No. 7 playoff spot tonight, but the loser has another chance — they’ll face the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 contest on Friday.
- The victor of that final matchup snags the eighth and final postseason berth. Fun, right?
💪 Eastern Conference play-in teams
No. 7 Miami Heat: After missing out on the NBA Finals by just four points last year, Jimmy Butler is out for vengeance. The efficient veteran led his team in scoring through an up-and-down season while big man Bam Adebayo held down the defense. A match made in play-in heaven.
No. 8 Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks’ front office made all the wrong headlines this season, nearly overshadowing the squad’s downward on-court spiral. Trae Young and his crew are certainly the underdogs, but perhaps postseason pressure is just what they need to succeed.
No. 9 Toronto Raptors: It’s been a rollercoaster season for the Raps, who started strong, stumbled mid-season, and have been making up ground ever since. Thankfully, Pascal “Spicy P” Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Scottie Barnes are back in form at just the right time. Hear them roar.
No. 10 Chicago Bulls: The Bulls also had a tumultuous season, and while they posted big wins against top teams, they struggled to keep up their real big energy against lesser opponents. It’ll be up to DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine (pronounced luh-VEEN) to help the storied franchise advance to their second playoff appearance in the last six seasons.
👊 Western Conference play-in teams
No. 7 LA Lakers: Despite a slow season start, the finally healthy Lakers rebounded to win nine of their last 11 games. Leading the WC’s best defense since the trade deadline, all-time NBA leading scorer LeBron James is looking to cement his LA legacy by bringing home another ring for the purple and gold.
No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves: The end of the Wolves’ season read like a UFC ringside report, with two starters out today after throwing punches en route to the eighth seed. Coach Chris Finch admits such immaturity needs to be left behind if Minnesota wants to make a splash in the postseason — and with Karl-Anthony Towns firing on all cylinders, it’s possible.
No. 9 New Orleans Pelicans: With generational talent Zion Williamson out as he continues to struggle with injury, the Pels have leaned on their defense (the sixth-best D in the league) to qualify for the play-in. And good thing because they’ll need a whole lot of it to overcome their lackluster sans-Zion offense.
No. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder struck big this season with their young gun: the slick and stylish Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Canadian averaged over 30 points per game this season (good for fourth in the Association) and will run the show for this young OKC squad.
➡️ Eastern Conference playoff teams
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks: With the king of dad jokes Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced ah-det-oh-KOON-boh) leading the way, the Bucks are back in the playoffs for the seventh straight year, this time locking in the NBA’s best regular-season record. Add a healthy Khris Middleton to the mix, and opponents should fear the deer.
No. 2 Boston Celtics: Don’t let their late-season stumbles fool you: the Cs jumped out to a historic season start and are still one of the favorites to hoist the trophy after last year’s runner-up finish. Their All-Star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been silencing rumors of a rift with their offensive output and should shine even brighter come playoff time.
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers: MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid’s (pronounced jo-ELL em-BEAD) history-making performances and James Harden’s quiet consistency have Philly fans trusting the process more than ever, but Harden’s playoff woes might give them pause — the Beard notoriously struggles come crunch time. TBD if Embiid can carry them on his (very large) shoulders alone.
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are a true contender this year, making the postseason for the first time since 2018 thanks to a major boost from their offseason acquisition, Donovan Mitchell. Boasting the league’s best defense, they hold opponents to under 107 points per game. This squad has dark horse written all over it.
No. 5 NY Knicks: After missing the postseason last year, the Knicks are playing like they have something to prove. While All-Star Julius Randle’s late-season ankle injury leaves him sidelined (for now), his absence forced others, namely Jalen Brunson and Canadian RJ Barrett, to step up, with each averaging double-digit points this year. Bing bong, baby.
No. 6 Brooklyn Nets: It’s been a dramatic season, to say the least, as the superteam that wasn’t fell apart. But, amid the chaos, Brooklyn’s found consistency, namely in midseason acquisitions Spencer Dinwiddie and Mikal Bridges. Could this be the dream team the Nets have been waiting for?
⬅️ Western Conference playoff teams
No. 1 Denver Nuggets: Behind the Herculean effort of reigning two-time MVP Nikola “triple-double” Jokić, the Nugs secured the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history. The Joker dealt with injury down the stretch, but with the help of teammate Jamal Murray, he should be ready to gallop to another deep playoff run.
No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies: After years of missed playoffs and first-round exits, the Grizz proved they belong on the big stage last year, giving the eventual champion Golden State Warriors a run for their money in the second round. And with Ja Morant back after taking time away following a series of off-court incidents, expect some major growl power.
No. 3 Sacramento Kings: Light the beam! The Kings snapped the sports world’s longest playoff drought, returning to postseason glory for the first time since 2006. With All-Stars De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis reigning supreme on offense, not to mention sharpshooter Kevin Huerter splashing threes, this Cinderella story is must-see TV.
No. 4 Phoenix Suns: It’s title or bust for this four seed after they set the league ablaze with the acquisition of superstar Kevin Durant in February. Veteran Chris Paul is still searching for that elusive first ring, and this could finally be his year, especially if he and Devin Booker can stay healthy.
No. 5 LA Clippers: After missing last season with an ACL injury, Kawhi Leonard is looking to get back to his Finals MVP ways. Though he sure knows how to handle big moments, he’ll have to be even more impressive without fellow superstar Paul George, who’ll miss at least the beginning of the postseason with a lingering knee injury.
No. 6 Golden State Warriors: Yes, Steph Curry and the defending champs just avoided the play-in tourney. They’ve been plagued by injuries for much of the season, but, as Klay Thompson said, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them in a seven-game series when they’re healthy. Splish splash.
📺 How to tune in
It all begins tonight: The EC’s No. 7 Miami Heat host the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks at 7:30 p.m. ET then the WC’s No. 7 LA Lakers welcome the No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves at 10 p.m. ET, with both games airing on TNT in the U.S. and Sportsnet 360 in Canada.
- Tomorrow, it’s the Eastern No. 10 Chicago Bulls vs. the No. 9 Toronto Raptors at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the Western No. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder against the No. 9 New Orleans Pelicans at 9:30 p.m. ET, on ESPN in the US and TSN in Canada. Happy hooping!