The NBA awaits an unprecedented entry into the NBA Playoffs when the controversial play-in tournament will decide if two of the league’s marquee franchises in the Celtics and Lakers make it to round one. Adam Silver and league executives will watch nervously as two of the most popular franchises, who would’ve easily made the postseason in a normal format, could lose two fluke games and be out in a season where ratings already dropped.
Rest assured, if the Lakers lose out the league may reevaluate the future of the tournament, even though this year’s cast is more a product of a quick restart and condensed schedule than the play-in round itself.
It’s a risk that raises legitimate intrigue. Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum playing a one-game playoff on TNT is expected to invigorate the city of St. Louis. LeBron James and Steph Curry facing off could become one of the most anticipated games in recent league history.
Giving teams like Boston and Los Angeles the two-game leeway, the system should build suspense — NCAA Tournament-like to Brad Stevens — for games that’ll likely be tedious steps into the first round. For teams like the Hornets and Grizzlies it qualifies as a win-win. Memphis and Indiana will host a playoff game, it keeps those fanbases engaged late into the season and prompted a team like the Bulls to buy at the trade deadline despite eventually missing the tournament.
“I’m with the king man, why do we they this play-in thing? Whoever did that, they need to be fired, it’s ridiculous,” Scott Brooks quipped on Sunday after the Wizards clinched the eight seed. “I’m kidding. I actually love this. It created so much excitement the last few weeks ... even though we’re now the eight seed I still love it.”
The Wizards starting 5-15 added to that perspective. They could’ve packed it in midway through the year after starting as one of the east’s worst teams. Memphis started 2-6 and 9-10 before finishing 38-34, better than Boston. The standings remained fairly even all year at the bottom of each conference, nobody felt robbed at 11th and every team involved feels deserving. Indiana, Memphis and San Antonio may not factor into the eventual playoffs, but each team can sell itself on catching fire for one night.
Pressure that didn’t manifest itself in Boston and Los Angeles will result in a lesson for both teams. Tristan Thompson underestimated the impact of regular season games all year in press conferences until it was too late. The Lakers’ top-heaviness combined with injuries led to a disappointing season, hurting them for not having the appropriate depth.
Rest opportunities did became less plentiful and LeBron James had to return from an ankle injury to try to win out late in the season to avoid seven, as he infamously bashed an idea he once championed in the Bubble. The Pacers may be opting to sit key players in the winner-take-all due to Caris LeVert’s entry into COVID protocol and injuries diminished their chance at a real postseason run. That’s the problem with dipping all the way to the league’s 20th team, a 12th position in the lottery is more valuable to Indiana than making the playoffs.
The health tradeoff is less of a statement on the play-in round than it was on the condensed season. Stevens responded coldly to the format when asked in April about the health-winning balance — “it is what it is” — but sounded excited about the prospect of returning to the one-game playoff situations he succeeded in at Butler one decade ago.
“I treated it a lot like a Thursday-Saturday NCAA Tournament, where you have the one day to prepare,” Stevens said of his approach. “There’s obviously a lot more familiarity with opponents in the NBA because you play everybody, and we played Washington three times this year and have played against Scott’s teams forever, so they know us and we know them, but you do hone in on some details that you can’t necessarily get to if it was a back-to-back or even a one-day turnaround during the regular season.”
Stevens got ahead on possible opponents since the Celtics locked into the seven-seed last Wednesday. That’ll be a rare occurrence, but allowed his staff to advance scout Washington, Indiana and Charlotte immediately. They saw a Wizards team that can court bigger and smaller lineups, while keying in on Westbrook’s ability to overpower defenses and Beal’s movement action. Scouting Washington additions like Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchinson, who hadn’t played the Celtics in their previous meetings.
The difficulty will be moving onto Thursday if Washington beats Boston. Stevens’ rotations will likely edge closer to playoff minutes tonight, so one day off and having to then scout a new team entirely for a winner-take-all situation was one of the harder challenges he faced at Butler.
“The Thursday game you’re more prepared for than the Saturday game,” he said. “It’s just the way it goes, you get 4-5 days and you can really start taking things away and looking at what the opponents do. Whereas I think the one-day turnaround in a situation like this it is how can we get what we need to get? How can we know what we need to know and how can we play with a clear mind as well as we can? ... I’ve been through this a lot.”
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins called the tournament awesome. Gregg Popovich praised the playoff flavor it provided his younger players. Steve Kerr joked that if the Warriors were 9-10 they’d love the tournament and if they were 7-8 it’d be “total bullcrap.”
Golden State ended up eighth, but only due to an epic performance by Curry that could earn him some MVP votes. Ryen Russillo argued that game would exist in the past anyway, as it did when the Nuggets and Timberwolves played game 82 for the final playoff spot a few years ago.
Those occurrences were the exception though, and now every season there’ll be playoff-like games in April before a fun slate of consequential games before the first round. In some ways these games could gain more hype than any first-round meeting that follows.
“I kind of forgot (the NCAA Tournament),” Kemba Walker said. “That’s 10 years ago, but you got to take it one game at a time. That’s really all it is. Lose, you’re out ... we’re going out there to win.”