The NBA play-in tournament ended up being a real hit last season in a campaign suspended by the COVID pandemic. When the league resumed action in the Orlando bubble, it was decided the best way to make things fair for teams that were pushing for the playoffs as of the suspension (and make it worth the lower-tiered teams’ time to make the trip) was this play-in.

With only 16 teams making the playoffs, the NBA wanted 20 teams to resume action. In addition, not every team ended up playing the same number of games. It was essentially a way to level the field for the bottom of both the East and Western Conferences and to give an incentive for all teams to bring their A-games.

The NBA play-in tournament was re-introduced for this season after being unanimously approved by the league’s board of governors

Here’s how it worked last season:

If the ninth-seeded team in either conference was within 3.0 games of the eight-seed at the end of the regular season, they would qualify for the play-in. The East had no close races, but the Memphis Grizzlies ended up being a close enough nine-seed (although the Phoenix Suns fell just short in 10th, in spite of a perfect 8-0 bubble record) to qualify and face the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.

In the inaugural NBA play-in, the nine-seed would have to beat the eight-seed twice, while the eight-seed would only need one win to keep their place and make the playoffs. The Blazers won the first game and brought things to a swift conclusion, although the Grizzlies made it a battle.

The expanded competition seemed like a good thing to the NBA and its board of governors, and they unanimously agreed to bring it back for this season.

However, the 2020-21 iteration of the play-in is a different beast from last season’s version. Let’s take a look at how it works this season.

What is the NBA play-in tournament and how does it work in the NBA Playoffs?

  • The play-in begins after the conclusion of the regular season, on May 18th. The final day of the play-in is May 21st, the day before the NBA playoffs begin
  • Teams seeded seventh through 10th in both conferences will qualify for the play-in
  • The teams that finish seventh and eighth will play one game with the winner becoming the seventh seed going into the playoffs
  • The teams that finished ninth and 10th will play one game with the loser eliminated, and the winner will play the loser of the seven vs eight matchup
  • The winner of the final game makes the playoffs as the eight-seed, the loser enters the lottery as a non-playoff team

In addition to not being at risk going into the play-in, teams seeded 1-through-6 benefit from the additional time off between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, thanks to the time needed for this play-in tournament.

We’re going to have a stacked Western Conference play-in, more likely than not. Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are in the mix, as are the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies once again. Just like last year’s NBA play-in was a massive success, we can expect this one to be as well.

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