NBA Eastern Conference play-in: Wizards look to keep magic going

NBA insider Kevin O'Connor joins Sportsnet's Evanka Osmak to discuss which Eastern and Western Conference teams hold an advantage heading into the NBA's first ever play-in tournament ahead of the 2021 playoffs.

The 2021 NBA play-in tournament will kick off Tuesday with the initial Eastern Conference games.

As a reminder to how the tournament will work, the No. 7 and 8 seeds will play to determine who officially captures No. 7, with the loser of that game then going on to face the winner of the Nos. 9-10 match for the No. 8 seed.

Here’s a closer look at the two initial games that will play Tuesday, with a prediction on who will win each game, plus a hypothetical glance at the No. 8-deciding contest that will play Thursday night.

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(7)Celtics vs. (8) Wizards

Fueled by a remarkable past six weeks, the Washington Wizards have gone from a team that just about everyone expected to disappoint once again and miss the play-in tournament altogether, to arguably the hottest and most dangerous team in the entire post-season, let alone the play-in tournament.

Thanks to the brilliance of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, plus the strong supporting play of mid-season acquisition Daniel Gafford and Robin Lopez, the Wizards have been nearly unstoppable, boasting a league-best 17-6 record since April 7, and a top-five net rating during that span that saw them shoot up the standings from No. 13 in the East to No. 8.

On the other hand, the Boston Celtics, Washington’s opponent on Tuesday, has been trending in just about the exact opposite direction.

After a roller-coaster season, it’s fitting that the Celtics would begin their post-season pursuit in the play-in tournament, as a combination of bad injury luck and, perhaps, just a hangover from going down in six games to the Miami Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals which saw them fail to get right all season long.

An unfortunate microcosm of the kind of season the Celtics have had could be seen over their last eight games, as they’ve dropped six of those contests and suffered the back-breaking loss of all-star forward Jaylen Brown who will miss the remainder of the season with a wrist injury.

Brown was Boston’s second-leading scorer, averaging 24.7 per game, but even without him, it’s not like the Celtics will be lacking firepower as they still have fellow all-star Jayson Tatum, as well as Kemba Walker, who figures to be as healthy as possible after sitting out of Boston’s last three games.

It’s a one-game series, and with the overflow of talent the Celtics boast – remember they also have players like Marcus Smart, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson on the roster – they can certainly get the job done and officially lock up the No. 7 seed. However, given how hot the Wizards have been down the final stretch of the season, and how cold Boston has been, it’s hard to bet against Washington in any game these days.

Prediction: Wizards win.

(9)Pacers vs. (10) Hornets

The Indiana Pacers have had a tumultuous end to their season as they slowly and precipitously fell down the Eastern Conference standings to finish as the No. 9 seed.

Along the way, there was an ugly-looking blow up on the bench between Pacers assistant Greg Foster and backup centre Goga Bitadze, that then led to a report from Bleacher Report, that slammed the Pacers and their head coach Nate Bjorkgren, in particular – a report that the Toronto Raptors, Bjorkgren’s previous team, have expressed disdain, saying some of the details in the report about Bjorkgren were false.

Despite all of this, though, the Pacers managed to scratch and claw their way to the No. 9 seed in the East, and finished with a 4-3 record in their last seven games, including a win over the first-place Philadelphia 76ers.

Yes, it’s been a difficult season for the Pacers and some of the turmoil described in that Bleacher Report story is bound to be at least a little true, but heading into their one-and-done matchup Tuesday against the Charlotte Hornets, you have to like their chances as they are the more talented team.

Or at least, they should be more talented. An area of concern for the Pacers is their injury report heading into Tuesday. They already will be without T.J. Warren and Myles Turner, who both are out for the season, while all-star Domantas Sabonis and floor general Malcolm Brogdon are both listed as “questionable” for Tuesday’s game.

Sabonis and Brogdon are probably Indiana’s two best players and if they’re unable to go, it would leave Caris LeVert on a bit of an island to fend off a young and hungry Hornets team that could’ve been more dangerous if not for the unfortunate season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward earlier in the season.

Still, the Hornets boast players like Terry Rozier, Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk and, of course, likely rookie of the year winner LaMelo Ball.

Talent like that will always be dangerous in a one-and-done situation, but the reality of Charlotte’s situation is this is a team that slumped hard to end the season, losing six of its last seven games, including its last five games in a row.

Playing post-season basketball of any kind will be helpful for the growth and development of the Hornets’ young guns, but it’ll likely only be this one game Tuesday.

Prediction: Pacers win.

(7) Celtics vs. (9) Pacers

In our hypothetical Thursday-night matchup for the No. 8 seed based on who we think will win in Tuesday’s contests, the same issues will likely persist for both teams as they fight for that final playoff berth.

With that said, of these two clubs, it’s safer to trust the Celtics. It looks like Boston has the potential to be healthier than Indiana – even with Brown being out – and the Celtics would boast the best player on the floor in Tatum, regardless of how healthy Indiana might be.

In a win-and-you’re-in situation, overall talent matters, and the Celtics are simply the more talented team.

Prediction: Celtics win.

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