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11 teams to watch as Play-In chase enters final month

Veteran-laden contenders and youthful upstarts alike have their eye on the Play-In Tournament berths that come at season's end.

The 2022 Play-In Tournament won’t be lacking in star power if the Nets and Lakers are in it.

Play-In Picture

The NBA Play-In Tournament is a month away from providing suspense, and much like last season’s debut, there’s a flurry of activity among a number of desperate teams sitting on the fence.

That includes the Los Angeles Lakers, in case you’ve spent the last few months without the internet and cable.

Yes, it’s true: L.A. and LeBron James are in strange and uncomfortable territory as they attempt to scrub the grime of 2021-22 off their jerseys and collect themselves and their bruised egos in time to save their season, or what’s left of it.


Should the Lakers finish in the No. 7-10 range in the Western Conference standings, the Play-In Tournament will suddenly have an unexpected bonus and will surely become must-watch TV, if only to see how the Lakers respond to a possible one-and-done situation.

The chase for a playoff spot will also insure that the Lakers, and other teams in their position, won’t rest their stars too much, if at all, between now and then. This will keep LeBron in the tight race for the NBA scoring title, so the Play-In has unintentionally created an additional bit of intrigue.

Otherwise, the drama being produced here in the stretch run makes for heavy interest at a time when, in the past, the final month of the season was rather mundane for the most part.

Here’s a closer examination of where the play-in situation stands at the moment in both conferences, the teams involved, along with the key players, and where it might be heading.

Eastern Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs have gone 4-6 since the All-Star break after being the surprise team through the first half-season, when they were 35-21 at one point and sent a pair to the All-Star Game. Injuries to those young stars, Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland, didn’t help, but that’s only part of the issue. The Cavs simply haven’t kept pace with the teams in their company. As a result, their lack of staying power — not unusual for overachieving teams over an 82-game season — has them teetering on the protective top-six cutline. They need to recapture the magic and prevent a free-fall, and even more, hope their Play-In pecking order isn’t decided in the final week of the regular season. Worth noting: three of their final four games are against the Nets, Bucks and 76ers.

Our experts take a closer look at how the Celtics, Nets, Cavs and Hawks might fare as the rest of the season plays out.

Toronto Raptors: A midseason eight-game winning streak put the Raptors on solid ground and squarely in the Play-In conversation. During this time, Pascal Siakam rediscovered his touch while All-Star guard Fred VanVleet and rookie Scottie Barnes maintained their consistency. Gary Trent Jr. dropped 42 points on the Suns and, suddenly, Toronto is feeling frisky about its chances of sneaking into the safe haven of the top six. They just need OG Anunoby to heal up and for their overall defense to improve.

Brooklyn Nets: Hear those footsteps? Everyone in the East does, and they’re aware of the push by Brooklyn to escape the Play-In scenario altogether. Kevin Durant is healthy and able to drop a 50-piece if necessary — he gave 53 to the Knicks on Sunday — but evading the Play-In is no lock for the Nets. Kyrie Irving still can’t play home games (yet) — he’s scheduled to miss 10 of Brooklyn’s final 13 games — and there’s no timetable for Ben Simmons’ debut. But the schedule does favor Brooklyn in another sense as six of the last eight are against teams with losing records. Most likely, the Nets will need the vaccine mandate to be lifted and for Simmons to return very soon in order to escape the Play-In.

Despite the ups and downs, Brooklyn's ceiling looms as the postseason approaches.

Charlotte Hornets: This team was interesting for a minute, until a February swoon dropped them into Play-In territory. Now, they’re trying to avoid the No. 9-10 spot. They do have five straight at home upcoming, starting Wednesday against the Hawks (7 ET, NBA League Pass), and they’ll need a strong stand to keep from faltering. Poor defense is dooming the Hornets, and spoiling otherwise decent offensive efforts by LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges.

Atlanta Hawks: Wasn’t this team in the conference finals a season ago? Seems like forever. It’s been a drain on the Hawks, to face that perplexing reality, to see themselves fighting for their playoff lives at the moment. A spate of injuries helped create this, but honestly, the Hawks haven’t seen an uptick among their collection of young talent (Trae Young excepted) and never developed much bite defensively. The lack of action at the trade deadline didn’t bring anyone to the rescue, either.

Western Conference

Minnesota Timberwolves: Very quietly, the Wolves are starting to show maturity and the development that was anticipated once Karl-Anthony Towns joined D’Angelo Russell and were gifted Anthony Edwards. This Baby Big Three is jelling, with recent wins over the Warriors, Cavs and Grizzlies as proof, and it’s not out of the question that seventh-place Minnesota makes a push to climb into top-six protection. Given their frigid history of making the playoffs, period, the Wolves will take what they can get.

Our experts take a closer look at how the Lakers, Mavs, Wolves, Pelicans and Spurs might fare as the rest of the season plays out.

LA Clippers: In a sense, the Clippers seem blessed to even be at this point, with a solid chance of being in the Play-In. That’s especially true when you consider the season-long absence of Kawhi Leonard and the season cameo by Paul George (both due to injury). Assuming neither returns to the lineup in the regular season, the Clippers must continue to make do with Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and the refreshing emergence of Luke Kennard. The goal is to make the playoffs, then their cross fingers and hope their stars heal in a hurry.

Los Angeles Lakers: Well, well, well. Didn’t LeBron once say that whomever came up with the Play-In idea should be fired? Well, that NBA executive, in hindsight, probably gave LeBron a 2021-22 life preserver and deserves a raise. Because at this point, the only way the Lakers can salvage a disastrous season is by leveraging themselves in the Play-In. Their chances of qualifying for the tournament seem decent, and now they just need a return by Anthony Davis and some stabilization from Russell Westbrook to punch their playoff ticket. Once there — and this is a best-case scenario for the Lakers — they can at least put a scare into whomever they see in the first round.

Are the Lakers essentially destined for a Play-In Tournament spot?

New Orleans Pelicans: The trade that brought CJ McCollum at the deadline probably spared the Pelicans from a total waste of a season. McCollum has been terrific since arriving in New Orleans, teaming up nicely with Brandon Ingram, and the Pelicans responded favorably initially, with a pair of four-game winning streaks. Of course, they’re also prone to a tough stretch, too, and then there’s the ongoing guessing game with Zion Williamson and will-he or won’t-he step on the court this season. Either way, the Pelicans will be disadvantaged in the Play-In.

Portland Trail Blazers: You have to wonder if Portland even wants to be in this situation, sitting precariously on the Play-In fence with a chance to extend their season, however briefly. After trading McCollum, that indicated this team was anxious to get a jump on rebuilding. And it doesn’t help that Anfernee Simons is dealing with injury. It’ll take an unexpected surge just for the Blazers to grab the 10th spot, which seems unlikely.

San Antonio Spurs: At least Gregg Popovich secured the all-time wins by a coach, right? Well, then, at least the Spurs accomplished one goal this season. They’re not totally eliminated from the play-in bubble, but they don’t seem terribly motivated to plow their way into it, either. This is a transitional year that saw Pop reach basketball immortality and Dejounte Murray reach stardom. Otherwise, the Spurs are busy sifting through a young and mainly inexperienced roster to see who sticks around beyond this season.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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