The 2021 NBA play-in tournament: who is playing and how it works

The Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, left, pressures the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

After a pseudo test run in the bubble last year, the NBA will be debuting the play-in tournament in earnest this season.

Regardless of your opinion on the tournament — and there are many to be had — from a league perspective, the initial goal of the play-in tournament has been met as this has been the tightest regular season in recent memory. Final seeding was still up in the air on the final day of the regular season, and more teams than ever were looking to make a push into the post-season, rather than just deciding to shut it down and just play for more ping pong balls.

Is it a little ridiculous that a team like the Los Angeles Lakers with 42 wins in a 72-game season is forced to play into the playoffs now? Yeah, a little. But that speaks more to the overall quality of the Western Conference than the failures of the play-in tournament.

The four-day event will get going Tuesday evening, and in case you’re still a little confused as to how this whole thing works, here’s a quick guide for you:

Play-in teams and schedule

Before diving into the specifics of the tournament’s format, here are the eight teams that made it into the play-in tournament:

Eastern Conference
No. 7 Boston Celtics
No. 8 Washington Wizards
No. 9 Indiana Pacers
No. 10 Charlotte Hornets

Western Conference
No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
No. 8 Golden State Warriors
No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies
No. 10 San Antonio Spurs

And here’s a glance at the four-day schedule ahead:

• Charlotte at Indiana at 6:30 p.m. ET.
• Washington at Boston at 9:00 p.m. ET.

• San Antonio at Memphis at 7:30 p.m. ET.
• Golden State at Los Angeles Lakers at 10:00 p.m. ET.

• Winner of Charlotte-Indiana vs. loser of Washington-Boston at 8:00 p.m. ET.

• Winner of San Antonio-Memphis vs. loser of Golden State-Los Angeles Lakers at TBD.

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Play-in tournament format

Using the information seen above as a guide, it’s a bit easier to lay out how the play-in tournament works.

Essentially, there are four teams in each conference vying for the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds, with each spot determined in a specific manner.

No. 7 seed: In order to earn No. 7, teams must have finished at least seventh or eighth in their respective conferences and from there it’s really simple. The winner of that seven-eight game (Washington at Boston and Golden State and Los Angeles Lakers) will earn the No. 7 seed automatically.

No. 8 seed: Getting No. 8 requires a little more work and is the reason why there’s an extra couple of days in for the play-in tournament. In order to capture the No. 8 seed, the winner from the nine-10 matchups (Charlotte at Indiana and San Antonio at Memphis) must play the loser of the seven-eight games.

So, for example, let’s say the Lakers fall to the Warriors on Wednesday, that means in order to make the playoffs, Los Angeles would then have to beat the winner of the Spurs-Grizzlies game,  earning the No. 8 seed for their troubles.

It’s a harsh scenario, but because of the one-and-done nature of the play-in tournament, the chances of these games being exciting should be pretty high.

When do the NBA playoffs start?

And in case you were wondering, the 2021 NBA playoffs will get started a day after all the play-in festivities are over on Saturday, May 22.

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