The season’s winding down before our very eyes. Four days to go.
But the excitement’s just ramping up.
The Play-In nearly upon us and what a majestic concept it is.
Usually, by now, we’re going through the motions. Burning off last games of the season like unwelcome warts. Waiting for the first round to get underway.
Excitement limited to a bit of standings jostling, sommmeeetimes a winner-takes-all final game, and, most perversely, lottery-positioning losses. It’s typically mundane stuff.
No longer. The simple tweak of the Play-In has turned the end-of-season excitement to 11.
I wrote about my blood and vinegar for the Play-In a couple of days ago. I won’t reiterate too much.
But let’s go first principles here.
Why do we watch sports? For entertainment.
How do we entertain? With thrill and excitement.
How do we create thrill and excitement? Unpredictability and unrelenting competition.
Lo’ and behold, the Play-In.
With it, no team’s future is set. Top seeds await the end of it. Middle seeds scramble to avoid it. And seeds 7-13 war to get in it. Listen to The Mismatch or The Lowe Post try and make sense of it all. They can’t. No one can. That’s fun. Really fun.
The League’s frustratingly predictable. Seldom does a team surge to the top out of nowhere. At best, a lower-tier team sneaks into the Playoffs. That’s the regular season. In the Playoffs, it’s even more predictable. Of the past several years, I can think only of the 2020 Miami Heat – an exceptional set of circumstances – where a true Dark Horse rode deep into the Playoffs.
Since 2003, when the NBA moved five-game, first-round series to seven games, chaos has succumbed to order. Upsets less common by virtue of math favouring better teams. Over the course of time, better scorers win out.
The Play-In doesn’t necessarily change all that much come Playoff time, but it might. At the very least, there’s wiggle room. And, I’ll tell you why.
The NBA is a slog of a season with heavy wear and tear. There’s almost always a superstar or a roster segment buried under injuries early or late in the season. If the timing is right, they’re healthy and winning by Playoffs; if it’s not, they’re weak and limping into them, teams 10-13 mathematically too far to catch them.
That’s no fun for anyone.
Instead, the Play-In leaves room for the NBA to course correct. Hot teams get a shot to roll right into the Playoffs; cold or crippled ones, slumping, fall out.
In 2019, when the Detroit Pistons lost their All-Star, Blake Griffin, just prior to playing powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, the series was a wrap before it started. The Heat and Hornets were only two games behind when the season ended. If there had been a Play-In, the Pistons likely would have lost and saved us all the boredom of four pathetic games.
Boston lost Jaylen Brown for the year last week. They’re still feisty, but a deep Playoff-run unlikely. They’ll probably be the 7th seed (we’ll get to that) – they were already tumbling pre-Brown wrist injury – and will still have two shots to prove themselves. If they’re not good enough to win one of those two games. They’re definitely not good enough to battle Brooklyn or Philly.
At the same time, a scorching hot team, redeeming a poor, early start – perhaps, due to injury or a trade or whatever – now has a shot to make it. We’ll see momentarily how diabolically wonderful that is.
This is the number of man-games lost to injury by February 9th, 2021:
NBA injury plot. Games missed by injured players versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost (Lost-ws metric) https://t.co/ECMq1V274E pic.twitter.com/cAnxHMTqbS
— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) February 10, 2021
Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, Golden State (under IND) all suffered early. If you were in the Eastern Conference, there was lots of time to recover. If you were in the West, not so much. Either the Warriors and Grizzlies, who will both be in the Play-In, would have been eliminated. Now healthy, they both have shots to get in.
You may say, that’s not fair to teams who remained healthy throughout or had a better record. Technically, true. But it’s equal opportunity. The same thing may happen to another team in a subsequent year.
A greater chance for Playoffs also means more teams won’t call it quits two-thirds into the season. Instead, teams well below 8th – the Wizards and Kings and Pelicans – looked at the Playoffs from afar thinking: “we got this”. They just needed to grab 10th for a shot at glory.
That played out at the trade deadline. Other than a few basement dwellers and the mercurial Toronto Raptors who foresaw their own doom much before fans (me) were willing to admit, there was not much to acquire. Orlando had to have two dudes tear their ACLs for them to give up hope. Sacramento – who still has a slim chance – thought they could make a run. HAH. The Pelicans, Spurs – though they’ll never fold so long as Pop is around – and Cavs refused to sell off any major assets. They were all in or within distance of the Play-In. That’s enough to convince your fanbase – or feel compelled to answer to it – that we’re making a Playoff push.
It’s all total fertilizer for the League. There are so many things I can’t stand about the NBA’s current operations – I won’t get into it now. They either do things that destroy its product value or do superfluous stuff that resolves nothing. MARVEL night was not the innovation I was really looking for.
The Play-in, though, is disruptive. Single elimination spits in the face of linearity.
And yet, a number of pundits and players poo-poo the Play-In.
Guys like LeBron James and Luka Dončić have proclaimed it stupid. Why play 70+ games to have your fate decided by a single game? they squawked.
Well, neither the NCAA nor the NFL sees a problem with that. It builds anticipation and encourages larger fan bases to tune in. Besides, the MLB has a wildcard game for bottom seeds; 160+ games reduced to a single-elimination match and no bluster from them. It’s been a revelation.
The best and most extreme example was the 2007 Colorado Rockies. They were four games above .500 with fifteen games remaining. They went 14-1 to tie the San Diego Padres and force a single-game “Play-In”. They won 9-8 in the 13th inning to make the Playoffs. They then proceeded to win the next seven games and make the World Series where they eventually lost.
The Phoenix Suns had a similar hot streak to end last year in the bubble. They were too far back to even make the Play-In, but EVERYONE and their pet geckos were hoping they’d squeeze in. They wanted to see the very best of the moment play the very best of the season.
Momentum is an enigmatic force in sports. It should be encouraged to flourish not stifled by the rigid binary of “in or out”. With the Play-In, no team is entirely safe. That’s what makes sports so darn enjoyable.
With that rant done, let’s look at the Play[-In]off Picture.
We haven’t even talked about the actual Play-In format yet! It’s the Final Four, NBA-style.
7 & 8 play each other and 9 & 10 play each other. The following occurs:
7 vs 8
→ Winner → PLAYOFFS → 7th Seed
→ Loser → Play Loser of 9 vs 10
9 vs 10
→ Winner → Play loser of 7 vs 8
→ Loser → ELIMINATED
Loser of 7/8 vs Winner of 9/10
→ Winner → PLAYOFFS → 8th Seed
→ Loser → ELIMINATED
The @sixers can clinch #1 in the East with a win tonight!
The #StateFarmPlayIn Tournament and #NBAPlayoffs picture as of today.
📖: https://t.co/6pl70CeK95 pic.twitter.com/WBZ6ud1Ky4
— NBA (@NBA) May 13, 2021
7th: Boston Celtics
8th: Charlotte Hornets
9th: Indiana Pacers
10th: Washington Wizards
Kinda Lurking: Chicago Bulls
It’s still unclear who will finish 7th to 10th. The Chicago Bulls, at 11th, have an iota of a sliver of a chance of squeaking into the Play-In, but they’d have to win all three of their remaining games, and Washington would have to lose both of theirs. The Wizards are without Bradley Beal; they can still capitalize on a lowly Cleveland Cavaliers seeking top draft status. The Bulls have to play the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. So, ya. It ain’t looking good for da Bulls.
Boston is 1.5 games up on Charlotte and Indiana who are both 1.5 games up on the Wizards.
Boston has the tiebreaker over Charlotte and Indiana.
Charlotte has the tiebreaker over Indiana.
The sweetheart story has been the Wizards. At the All-Star Break, they were 24th in the league; since, they’re 16th. Westbrook has been on an absolute tear and Bradley Beal’s battling Steph Curry for the scoring title.
The Celtics are without Jaylen Brown the rest of the way. They were struggling before he went down. Now, it’s even grimmer.
The Hornets are without Gordon Hayward still and the Indiana Pacers have imploded on the court and off of it, though, they’ve shown some strength of late salvaging their late-season tumble.
There’s lots of jostling to happen still.
Boston has the Knicks and Wolves. They win one they take 7th.
Charlotte has Clippers, Knicks, and Wizards. They win more than Indiana they take at least 8th.
Indiana has Bucks, Lakers, and Raptors. They win one they take at least 9th.
Washington blew their last two games against Atlanta losing by a total of five points. Now, with only two games remaining, they’re more or less stuck in 10th – barring total collapse from one of Hornets or Pacers.
There is a scenario where all three of Boston, Charlotte, Indiana or Charlotte, Indiana, and Washington tie. In those situations, tie-break goes to a division winner. None of those four teams are. It would then come down to the better winning percentage among the three teams.
In the first situation, it’s Boston; in the second it’s Charlotte.
Top Tier Fear
The Wizards. They’re the scariest team of the four. Westy and Beal have the combustibility to ruin a top team’s playoffs hopes; they can drop 70 on you at the flick of a switch. They won’t play much defence. But if the 76ers or Bucks’ offence suddenly sputters. Things could get a little sweaty.
7th: Los Angeles Lakers
8th: Golden State Warriors
9th: Memphis Grizzlies
10th: San Antonio Spurs
Kinda Lurking: Sacramento Kings
This is just all so good.
The Warriors are 0.5 games up on the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are 3 games up on the Spurs. The Spurs have 2 games on the Kings.
The Warriors have two games left; the Grizzlies three. They play each other for the last game of the season.
The Warriors and Grizzlies have split the season series 1-1. If the Grizz win the next two/win one, and the Warriors win/ lose, the two will be tied going into the final game of the season. Winner takes eighth!
The Spurs have three games left. If they win two, they’re in at tenth.
They can’t catch the Grizz even if Memphis flubbed all three because they have the tiebreaker.
If they win one and the Kings win three, the Kings win the tiebreaker. The Kings play…drum roll…the Memphis Grizzlies twice! Saucy stuff.
If the Warriors keep 8th, they play the Lakers in the first round of the Play-In. LeBron v Curry!
If all of that doesn’t make the next week must-watch TV, I don’t know what would!
Top Tier Fear
Take your pick.
It’s not unfathomable to see a second round with both the 8th and 7th seed there. The Warriors are a less fearsome team than the Lakers. But they have the 5th best defensive rating in the league. Betchu didn’t know that.
Their offence struggles. But Curry could score 40-60 each game of the series. Why not?
That might be all they need if their defence holds. In the last fifteen games, the Warriors have the best defensive rating in the league, the 14th best offence, and were 10-5. That’s the kind of momentum you need to spoil the dreams of a promising contender.
YOU want the Lakers? YOU DON’T WANT THE LAKERS. Don’t nobody want the Lakers.
You know LeBron has been cryogenically sleeping for three months. His clone has been dressing in fancy clothes on the sideline, “playing” every once in a while. But we’ll know the real LeBron when we see it.
Anthony Davis is back to full form according to his last three games where he’s averaging 31 pts, 9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2 steals, 1.5 blocks. Yeesh.
Even without those two, the Lakers have been thorns in the side of many. Once Dennis Schröder returns, they’ll be firing on all cylinders with a deep and defensively pesky bench. They can throw so many different looks at you that no stylistically-unique team is safe. They’ve an army of guys – Talen Horton-Tucker, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Marc Gasol to name a few – that can fudge teams up for 10-20 minutes a game. That could get sticky for, say, a young Phoenix team.
3rd: Los Angeles Clippers
4th: Denver Nuggets
5th: Portland Trailblazers
6th: Dallas Mavericks
The Clippers basically have third locked up. They play the Thunder and Rockets. Okay, no problem.
As does Denver in 4th, who is up 4.5 games on Dallas and Portland.
The Mavericks and Trailblazers are currently tied. Portland with the tiebreaker. They both have two games left, status quo goes to the Blazers.
Portland has the Suns and Nuggets. The latter game meaning little for Denver who’s destined for fourth.
Dallas has Toronto tonight (cheque, please), and Minnesota, who is at a crossroads. If the Wolves finish outside of the bottom three in the League, their first-round pick likely goes to Golden State – they kinda want to lose. But they’ve been playing great as you can see in the Net Rating chart (see below). So, who knows, what you’re going to get?
Top Tier Fear
The Clippers should be worried. Very worried. They’ve been wildly inconsistent. Their highs supremely high, their lows, reminiscent of last year’s playoff debacle. Even while beating the Raptors’ development team the other night, their offence, at times, was stodgier than a British breakfast. They’ll get Dallas or Portland. Neither so great an option.
Both have been hot. Dallas has won 11 of their last 15. Portland is on a five-game winning streak. Both have some of the highest changes in Net Rating since the All-Star break.
Who Got Better Since The All-Star Break? pic.twitter.com/nHADG84NxA
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) May 11, 2021
Utah and Phoenix have lotttsss to fear. We’ll get to that in a minute. There’s no good path here though. The most ideal, I suppose, is a Denver-Portland 4-5 matchup. Denver’s without Jamal Murray the rest of the year and Portland doesn’t play ANY defence. But then again, you’re volunteering to play the MVP or DameTime.
It’s not exactly Angel Food cake.
3rd: Milwaukee Bucks
4th: Atlanta Hawks
5th: Miami Heat
6th: New York Knicks
If Boston were healthy, this would be a verrrrry fun final couple of days. It is anyway, but it woulda been even better.
The Bucks are locked into 3rd, unless, the 76ers or Nets lose all of their games and the Bucks win all of theirs. Not likely. 76ers have the Magic twice. Nets have the Bulls and Cavs. Harden’s back…
Atlanta is up 0.5 game on Miami and New York.
The three-legged race for 4th, 5th, 6th, is the best race of them all.
Miami has the tiebreaker on New York
Atlanta has the tiebreaker on Miami.
New York has the tiebreaker on Atlanta!
Atlanta has only two games remaining: Rockets and Magic.
Knicks have the Spurs, Hornets, and Celtics. All three playing for stuff.
The Heat have the 76ers, Bucks, and Pistons. Two of the three with much to still claim.
So many permutations remain!
Atlanta wins both:
Knicks and Heat have to win out to get 4th or 5th.
If there’s a three-way tie, Atlanta and Miami would be co-division winners. It would then go to winning percentage within the division. That would go to Atlanta.
Meaning: Atlanta, Miami, New York.
Atlanta wins one:
New York has to win two to guarantee 5th and 4th – depending on how many Miami win.
Miami has to win three to guarantee 5th and 4th – depending on how many New York win.
Atlanta loses both:
New York has to win at least one to guarantee 5th and maybe get 4th – depending on how many Miami win.
Miami has to win at least two to guarantee 5th and maybe get 4th, and three to guarantee 4th – depending on how many New York win.
Top Tier Fear
Pick your poison.
The Heat will NEVER be an easy out. The Victor Oladipo loss stinks, but they didn’t need him before, and they won’t now. Jimmy Buckets is playing outstanding ball. He’s 10th in RAPTOR and 7th in estimated plus/minus. He knows how to close games and demonstrated that very clearly in the Finals last year. Bam’s getting more and more unguardable by the day. And the rest of the crew knows what to do.
Atlanta is deep AF. Trae Young is one of the best scorers in the league and Clint Capela one of the best interior defenders. They can roll with 11 deep and have many wings to slow down Kevin Durant or Kris Middleton or Tobias Harris. Their backcourt is inexperienced, but with Young, Kevin Heurter, and Bogdan Bogdanović, they’ll make opposing guards work.
New York is a Thibideau conjuration. They’re 4th in defensive rating for the year and 10th in offensive rating in the last fifteen games. Julius Randle is full-on MVP candidate. You’re not going to get out of a first-round matchup without many scratches and bruises.
The Tippity Top
1st: Utah Jazz
2nd: Phoenix Suns
Utah is up 1.5 games on the Suns.
Jazz have Thunder and Kings remaining.
Suns have Blazers and Spurs (x2).
Donovan Mitchell (14 games) and Mike Conley (9 games) have been out with injury for some time. Utah’s going to be careful with their reintroduction. They should split one of the two games. They seal 1st place winning both.
The Suns have a tougher three games. The Kings could be eliminated by the time Utah plays them. The Spurs will likely be competing for at least one of those games, if not both.
Top Tier Fear
Nowhere in the West is safe. Both paths are vile.
If you’re the one seed, you play one of Lakers/Warriors. Good luck, friends. Get through that you have the winner of Denver and Portland/Mavs.
If you’re the two seed, you play one of Lakers/Warriors. Good luck, friends. Get through that you have the winner of Los Angeles Clippers and Portland/Mavs.
It’s gonna be a boondoggle of a Western Conference Playoffs.
1st: Philadelphia 76ers
2nd: Brooklyn Nets
Philadelphia is up 1.5 games on Brooklyn and holds the tiebreaker.
Brooklyn plays the Bulls and Cavs.
Philadelphia has the Heat and Magic (x2).
Most Uncertainty/Top Tier Fear
It’s six of one or half dozen of the other. There’s no certainty as to who either the 76ers or Nets play either in the 7/8 seeds or the 4/5/6 seeds.
There’s less to fear from the Play-In results. Though, I see some plot twists on the horizon: Hayward gets healthy and leads a virile Hornets team; Beal and Westbrook and Lopez (ya that’s right big right hooky himself), like Bats out of Hell, wreak vengeance on all their enemies; or, the Pacers, in spite of their coaches, rally to overcome the doubters. The Wizards and Pacers are veteran teams. They’ll be less daunted by the circumstances.
But the real fear is over the third-place Bucks.
The Atlanta, New York, Miami clusterF is not going to clear itself until after Sunday most likely.
But, either way, you take the two best of those three teams over Milwaukee and the worst of them.
If the Nets finish second, which they most likely will, and things run chalk. They will have a gauntlet of:
4. Western Conference Champion
That’s a lotttt of battle scars.
Theoretically, Brooklyn is built for it. They have three dudes who can single-handedly win games on their own terms. Their bench has proven to be deep – loving Mike James, who I’ve already written about – and they’re battle-tested.
That’s in theory. In practice, their three superstars have played a grand total of 186 minutes together. So who’s to really say. It’s Basketball Gods karma that one goes down as soon as one gets healthy. Maybe their omnipotent powers will be more forgiving come post-season.
There are four slates of games remaining. Every team in the NBA plays Sunday, the final day. How romantic!
Thanks to the Play-In, it’s possible that all 15 games have a semblance of importance.
For the NBA, that’s the ultimate accomplishment.
For fans, that’s all we ever want.