What to know about the NBA Play-in Tournament


For the second-straight year, the NBA is taking a page out of the NCAA’s book and kicking off the postseason with a play-in tournament. 

Since permanently expanding the field to 16 teams in 1984, the NBA playoffs have continued to evolve, with much of the debate surrounding division champions and the best way to structure the bracket. The league seemed to reach a consensus in 2016 when they announced the playoffs would be made up entirely of the teams with the top-8 records from each conference, effectively eliminating any automatic bids and guaranteed seeding for division champions. 

That consensus proved to be short-lived. 

Covid-19 all but turned the NBA on its side as they sought one of the most ambitious undertakings in sports – hosting the playoffs in a bubble in the midst of the pandemic. In an effort to salvage the postseason, the Board of Governors elected to host a condensed end to the regular season featuring the top-22 team and include a play-in option for any nine-seed that finished within four games of the eight-seed. While it was ultimately only activated between the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference, it got the gears moving and the league continued to shake things up. 

Ahead of the 2021 playoffs, the NBA announced they would include a “play-in” component between seeds 7 through 10 of each respective conference to determine the final two seeds on each side of the 16-team bracket. 

Thus, the birth of the NBA play-in tournament. 

What is the NBA play-in tournament?

The NBA play-in tournament is a pair of brackets featuring four teams, designed to determine the seventh and eighth playoff spot for each conference. 

The tournament opens with a meeting between the teams with the seventh and eighth best records from each conference. The winner of that game automatically qualifies for the playoffs with the No. 7 seed. Meanwhile, the teams with the ninth and tenth best records – who were previously excluded from playoff contention – face off. The loser of that matchup is eliminated, while the winner moves on to face the loser of the seven-eight matchup, with the eighth and final playoff spot on the line.

When did the NBA play-in tournament begin?

The concept of a play-in game was introduced in 2020 during the NBA playoff bubble, but really took off in 2021 as a full-fledged piece of the NBA postseason. 

While initially designed to address the sudden disruption of the 2020 regular season, it now serves to discourage tanking down the stretch. In the inaugural season of the play-in tournament, the league quickly saw results with a record 24 teams still competing in the final month of play.

“Twenty-four is the highest we’ve ever had, in the history of the league, with a month left,” said Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, in an interview with Sports Illustrated

What is the NBA playoff schedule?

The NBA regular season wraps on April 10, but fans won’t be left waiting long because action picks right back up with the play-in tournament from April 12-15. The quick turnarounds continue with the first round set to begin April 16.

With the exception of the NBA finals, the schedule is flexible, depending on how long each series lasts, but the tentative postseason dates are below:

  • April 12-15: Play-in tournament
  • April 16: Start of the 2022 NBA Playoffs
  • May 2-3: Conference Semifinals begin (possibly moved to April 30-May 1)
  • May 17-18: Conference Finals begin (possibly moved to May 15-16)
  • June 2: NBA Finals, Game 1
  • June 5: NBA Finals, Game 2
  • June 8: NBA Finals, Game 3
  • June 10: NBA Finals, Game 4
  • June 13: NBA Finals, Game 5 (if necessary)
  • June 16: NBA Finals, Game 6 (if necessary)
  • June 19: NBA Finals, Game 7 (if necessary)

Where are the NBA play-in games held?

The NBA play-in tournament awards homecourt advantage to the highest seed in each matchup. 

Unlike some other leagues, no NBA playoff game is ever played on neutral territory. Beginning in the first round, teams move between their respective home arena, with the higher seed having a 4-3 hosting advantage in a seven-game series. 

All four rounds use a 2-2-1-1-1 format with the higher seed hosting games 1, 2, 5 and 7 (if necessary), while the lower seed hosts games 3, 4 and 6 (if necessary).

What is the current bracket picture for the NBA playoffs?

The bracket is starting to take form with five days left in the regular season. 

Eight teams have clinched playoff berths – four from each conference – including the top-2 seeds in the Western Conference, the No. 1 Phoenix Suns and the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies. 

Golden State and Dallas are also guaranteed spots in the first round, but it remains to be seen what seed they’ll finish with. The Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves are in a tight race for spots five through seven, each trying to avoid the dreaded play-in tournament. The LA Clippers sit in the eighth spot – six games behind the Timberwolves and 4.5 games ahead of New Orleans. Historically, this would give them a comfortable cushion to make the playoffs but the play-in tournament could put their postseason hopes in jeopardy. 

One of the biggest surprises out of the Western Conference is the disappointed showing of the star-studded Lakers. Frank Vogel’s team was already on the outside looking in midway through the season, but their odds of making the play-in got a lot worse these past two weeks as they dropped six-straight games. With four games remaining and two games behind the No. 9 San Antonio Spurs, LA needs a lot of things to go their way. 

The Eastern Conference is all but confirmed as all seeds No. 11 through 16 have already been eliminated and the top-6 teams separated from the rest of the pack. 

The Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls have locked up playoff bids to the first round. The play-in tournament is shaping up to be the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets. 

The full, up-to-date playoff picture is available here.

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