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12 teams to watch as Play-In Tournament jostling heats up

Taking stock of the contenders for the Play-In Tournament as the stretch run of 2020-21 pushes on.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Atlanta’s Trae Young and Dallas’ Luka Doncic have their teams in the Play-In mix this season.

The race worth watching in the NBA isn’t at the top of the heap. It is among the desperate, the hungry and the anxious. So, who’s all-in for the Play-In Tournament?

As May approaches and the weeks of the 2020-21 regular season start to wind down, the league has introduced suspense in what’s normally the blah stretch of the schedule by implementing the Play-In Tournament. This acts as a parachute and life preserver for teams that in the past would be counting down the days to the Draft lottery. Instead, they’re still alive.

There are seven teams in the East and five in the West who aren’t sure if they’re headed to the playoffs or a vacation by the third week of May. That’s how close the races are as of now. And so, there’s at least one game every night that can cause a reshuffling of the order, like Tuesday, when the Golden State Warriors visit the Dallas Mavericks (9:30 ET, TNT).

As a reminder, here’s how the Play-In Tournament works: The teams with the seventh- and eight-best records in the regular season will meet. The winner of that game is officially the seventh place finisher. The teams with the ninth- and 10th-best records will also meet. The loser is done for the year. The winner plays the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game, and the winner of that game claims the eighth and final playoff spot.

Essentially, the key is finishing among the top six in the conference and avoiding such a tournament. Or at the very least, avoid falling to nine or 10 and needing to win twice to get a playoff spot.

Play-In Tournament

Here’s a study of each team in the hunt, where they stand and possibly where they’re going.

Eastern Conference

New York Knicks: Lost in all the New York euphoria regarding the nine-game win streak is the reality that the Knicks aren’t in the clear. There’s a fair chance that should they fall back to Earth, they can fall to No. 7 or No. 8. Nobody in the Big City wants to hear that, but such is the case. They’ve had many advantages during this winning stretch, namely good health and a reasonably easy schedule. Oh, and Julius Randle, too. Still, let’s check back with Gotham after the upcoming killer six-game road trip when they’ll see the Suns, Grizzlies, Lakers (probably with LeBron), Nuggets and Clippers between now and May 11.

Check out the best plays and moments from the Knicks' recent 9-game win streak.

Atlanta Hawks: They stumbled noticeably in New York last week when they lost Trae Young with an ankle injury and also fell to the Knicks in OT. Still, this team is bringing enough depth and outside shooting to withstand the temporary loss of its leading scorer. Bogdan Bogdanovic in particular has smoldered from 3-point range and John Collins is healthy again. Nate McMillan is still pushing all the right buttons since taking over as interim coach, and so if Young recovers soon, the Hawks should avoid any late-season collapse and dodge the Play-In Tournament.

Miami Heat: It’s been a weird if not disappointing season for the defending East champs, who are still dropping confusing hints about their state of being. The talent is there, but it’s not reflecting positively on a nightly basis. Jimmy Butler’s tough love didn’t work, so … what’s next? At this point, we might conclude that they are who they are — a total mixed bag. And if this team continues to underperform under coach Erik Spoelstra, it would be a crime against basketball if Miami doesn’t make the playoffs and, suppose, the Wizards do get in.

Boston Celtics: At the end of March they were 23-25 and floundering. They then saved their season by winning nine of 10, and there’s four home games upcoming (April 27-May 2). As with the other teams in this group, the Celtics can rise to No. 4 or fall to No. 9 or 10. It all depends on a winning or losing streak, and as we’ve seen, Boston is capable of both. Jayson Tatum is playing at All-NBA level and Kemba Walker is starting to see consistency. Evan Fournier, on the other hand, has been a major disappointment since arriving from Orlando and struggling post-COVID. In back-to-back losses against the Nets and Hornets, he managed two points in 41 minutes of play.

Charlotte Hornets: At one point they were in fourth place, and now eighth. Such is life in the East, where a team’s fortunes can rise or fall substantially in short time. The Hornets are trying to make due without Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, and for the most part they’ve held it down, thanks mostly to Devonte Graham. Surely you’ve also seen Miles Bridges dunk with authority by now, too. Those dunks alone are worth watching the Hornets even without two of their of top players. Thankfully, Charlotte expects both of them back before the season ends.

Miles Bridges has been more than just a highlight dunker.

Indiana Pacers: Being such a bad home team (11-17) would normally disqualify them from any playoffs or Play-In discussion. The good news is Caris LeVert has hit the floor running since making his debut and his offensive skills are a welcome addition. Indiana has played better lately — they’ve won seven of their last 11 games — but the Pacers have teased us before. A team with LeVert, Miles Turner (currently dealing with a toe injury), Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and TJ McConnell should be enough to avoid disaster, yet stranger things have happened this season.

Washington Wizards: Helped by Russell Westbrook’s torrid triple-doubles, they’ve won eight straight to emerge from oblivion and re-announce themselves to the herd. Assuming that Bradley Beal’s leg injury the other day won’t linger, the Wizards are bringing a pair of stars that’ll make the Play-In contenders shiver. It’s too bad for Washington that Rui Hachimura isn’t healthy yet because this team desperately needs a third wheel. Is Daniel Gafford that guy? He has shined lately and if this continues and Hachimura returns before long, the hot Wizards will look to rise from No. 10 and lock in a more favorable position in the standings.

The rest in the East: At some point, basketball scientists will embark on an exhaustive study to examine exactly what happened to the Chicago Bulls since they pulled off the mid-season trade for Nikola Vucevic which was universally hailed. Chicago subsequently stumbled into the tank, and that pit became larger when All-Star Zach LaVine fell afoul of safety protocols. It’s not looking good for the Bulls … Regarding the Toronto Raptors, are they even considered a Play-In possibility at this point? Absent an unexpected reversal of fortune, the Raptors are counting down the days to when they can cross the U.S. border again and go home.

Western Conference

The Grizzlies and Blazers are in the thick of the Play-In chase out West.

Dallas Mavericks: Not long after star guard Luka Doncic and owner Mark Cuban expressed their perceived unfairness of the Play-In concept, the Mavericks have decided to make the conversation moot by distancing themselves from the pack. They’re sitting above the cutline, helped tremendously by the slumping Blazers, and hope to stay there. Can you imagine the angst if the Mavericks swap places with the No. 5 Lakers and the NBA possibly gets a Lakers-Clippers, No. 3 vs. No. 6 seed first-round matchup? Talk about unfairness.

Portland Trail Blazers: Sure, Damian Lillard’s injury didn’t help, but the Blazers chose the wrong time to go into a swoon. Suddenly, a top-four finish seems beyond reach, and just a few weeks ago the Blazers hardly anticipated being part of the Play-In. Yet, here they are. They’ll need more production from Norman Powell and Robert Covington and, of course, once again defense is a major issue with Portland. What will happen to coach Terry Stotts if Portland plunges further and gets squeezed out of the picture?

Memphis Grizzlies: Of all the teams currently in Play-In territory, does any have more upside than the Grizzlies? The easy answer is “no,” because Memphis is finally feeling whole after welcoming the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. You can see how recharged this team is, especially with Ja Morant feeling frisky. Grayson Allen and rookie Desmond Bane have been surprises. There’s a sense in Memphis that the best basketball is just ahead.

San Antonio Spurs: They won four out of five heading into Monday’s game against the Wizards, and because they’re the Spurs, they should never be counted out. Derrick White has upgraded his play lately while DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are vets who are still contributing. San Antonio went into a tailspin when it lost 10 of 12 in late March but its recovery since then is going well … and maybe better than expected.

Golden State Warriors: Why bother analyzing what Stephen Curry has done for this team, not only lately but all season? It’s nothing short of amazing, obviously. Yet, this team’s chances in the Play-In will ultimately be decided by those who orbit around Planet Steph. Can Kelly Oubre Jr., Andrew Wiggins and assorted role players fill in and stand out, at least on occasion? And while Draymond Green’s passing and defense remain superb, can he make a jump shot every now and then? It would be a shame if Curry leads the league in scoring but can’t lead the Warriors to the playoffs.

Once in danger of missing the playoffs altogether, the Stephen Curry-led Warriors could improve their standing in their final 11 games.

The rest of the West: The New Orleans Pelicans remain the enigma of the NBA, a team blessed with the force known as Zion Williamson and a terrific scoring swingman in Brandon Ingram yet can’t piece together a remarkable stretch of games. Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe are all but guaranteed to be elsewhere next season … As for the Sacramento Kings without De’Aaron Fox, it’s time to start holding auditions for next 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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