The 2023 NBA Play-in Tournament Format Explained

The regular season is over. The postseason field is set.

And the work that the 10th-seeded Chicago Bulls must do to clinch a playoff berth is cut out for them.

It begins on Wednesday in Toronto, where the Bulls will square off against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament’s No. 9 vs. No. 10 seed game.

The Play-In Tournament rules — which were fully introduced ahead of the 2020-21 season — require seeds Nos. 7-10 in each conference to play a mini-tournament over a span of four days to decide the two that teams will inhabit the seventh and eighth seeds in their conference’s playoff bracket.

This is the Bulls’ first ever appearance in the Play-In Tournament after finishing 11th in the East in 2021 and sixth in 2022. And they begin with an uphill battle before them.

Because the Bulls are the lowest seed in the East’s Play-In bracket, they face a single-elimination scenario in each game they play. Lose in Toronto, and their season is over. Win, and they earn the right to jet to the city of the team who loses the No. 7 vs. No. 8 seed game between the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat (on Tuesday night).

The winner of the Heat-Hawks game will fill the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and position themselves for a first round matchup with the Celtics. The loser will play the winner of the Bulls-Raptors game for the eighth seed — and an opportunity to face the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bulls dropped the season series 2-1 to the Raptors, with both losses coming in Toronto. The Raptors finished the season 27-14 at home and 14-27 on the road — the largest home-road record disparity in the East.

If the Bulls get through that game, awaiting them will either be a Hawks team against which they split the season series 2-2 or a Heat team which the Bulls swept 3-0 in three regular season meetings. But the postseason is a different animal.

From their 10th-place standing, Five Thirty Eight gives the Bulls an 10% chance of making the playoffs, a shade above their Western Conference 10-seed counterpart Oklahoma City Thunder (7%) for the lowest among the Play-In Field. Basketball Reference pegs the Bulls’ playoff probability a bit higher (27.1%), but still not likely.

Five Thirty EightBasketball Reference
Eastern Conference Play In Tournament Playoff Probability

History is certainly against the Bulls in their bid to make noise in the playoffs. No No. 10 seed has won even one Play-In Tournament game since the concept was introduced — let alone back-to-back wins without a loss.

In fact, DeMar DeRozan was a part of one of those teams, the 2021 Spurs, who fell to the ninth-seeded Grizzlies en route to Memphis earning the West’s eighth seed with a win over the Warriors in the 8-9 game. On the other side of the bracket that year, the 10th-seeded Hornets fell to the ninth-seeded Pacers, who went on to lose to the Wizards in the next game.

Last year, the Hornets again lost to the Hawks in the 9-10 game in the East, while the Spurs fell to the Pelicans in the West. Funny enough, both the Hawks and Pelicans went on to win their next games and advance to the 2022 playoffs.

If the Bulls were to pull off a similar run, their eventual playoff foe — the Bucks — would be a familiar one; but Milwaukee is also an opponent that handled the Bulls in five games in the first round of the 2022 playoffs — and in each of the final two matchups of the 2022-23 regular season. No Play-In Tournament team — seventh, eighth, or ninth seed — has taken more than two games in its eventual first-round series.

However, as a wise power forward with Chicago high school basketball roots once said, anything is possible. The Bulls’ improbable path begins soon.