2023 Play-In Tournament

2023 AT&T Play-In Tournament Preview: Friday's matchups

Key storylines to follow as Bulls-Heat and Thunder-Wolves compete in the 2023 AT&T Play-In Tournament on Friday.

The 2023 NBA postseason tips off with the AT&T Play-In Tournament. Get ready for the action with previews and predictions for Friday’s matchups, which will determine the No. 8 seed in each conference.

East: (10) Chicago Bulls @ (8) Miami Heat (7 ET, TNT)

The Winner: Advances to face Milwaukee in the first round as the No. 8 seed

The Loser: Is eliminated from Play-In Tournament

Regular-season results: Bulls swept the series 3-0

Keep Your Eyes On: Miami’s offense

The Heat finished the season as the lowest-scoring team in the league and then confirmed as much when they struggled Tuesday night against the Hawks by mustering just 105 points. That was no aberration, though. Miami simply can’t generate enough offense to get into a high-scoring match, and plus, the Bulls are fairly solid defensively. The good news for Miami is Chicago doesn’t play at a speedy pace. Miami got some unexpected juice against the Hawks from Kyle Lowry in its Play-In opener as he scored 33 points. That was his highest scoring game with the Heat and his first 30-point game since Feb. 5, 2021 — when he was still on the Toronto Raptors. Was that a fluke? Well, this would be a good time for the Heat to locate two or three others who can upgrade the offense, because very likely, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine will tag-team their way to big scoring nights, as they’ve done most of the season, and Miami must match that somehow.

Key Matchup: Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan vs. Miami’s Jimmy Butler

Caution — watching this matchup will make you feel like you’ve gone back in time to the 1980s or ’90s. That’s how much mid-range shooting will be shared by these two, who are perhaps the best if not most voluminous 2-point experts in the game. There’s a bit of more urgency on Butler, who’s coming off a sub-par performance (21 points on 6-for-19 shooting) against the Hawks in the Play-In opener, so “Jimmy Buckets” has something to prove. Also, he and DeRozan are among the league’s best clutch performers and finished in the top-four of clutch scorers. Their teams trust them with the ball in those situations, but the Bulls have the better supporting player in LaVine. Both DeRozan and Butler are proud veterans who usually rise to the occasion, so this will be a treat —  especially if the game is tight late.

Prediction: Heat

Can you beat a team four straight times in a season and also win a second road game in the Play-In? That’s what the Bulls are up against and those odds don’t seem so favorable. That, and you must figure the Heat will finally get the most of if their lineup, something that hasn’t happened with regularity this season. With Butler, Lowry, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, Miami is bringing a little more top-shelf talent than the Bulls. This game more than anything brings together two teams who underachieved during the season — that’s why they’re in the do-or-die portion of the Play-In — and are given this last chance to salvage themselves. This seems like a toss-up so don’t expect either team to run away, but give the Heat the edge based on home court and a player in Butler who’s looking to atone from his last outing.

West: (10) Oklahoma City Thunder @ (8) Minnesota Timberwolves (9:30 ET, ESPN)

The Winner: Advances to face Denver in the first round as the No. 8 seed

The Loser: Is eliminated from Play-In Tournament

Regular-season results: Timberwolves won the series 3-1

Keep Your Eyes On: Chemistry between Rudy Gobert and his teammates

His absence in Minnesota’s last game, an overtime loss to the Lakers, perhaps sent bad vibes in the locker room. Had Gobert played that game, the Wolves likely wouldn’t be playing this one. When Kyle Anderson instigated the flare-up with Gobert in the regular-season finale — which prompted a punch by Gobert — none of the Wolves rushed to Gobert’s defense. Nor was there a public plea from them to management to skip the one-game suspension with the season on the line. Nor was there any apology from Anderson for starting the whole thing. That was telling. Gobert’s first season with the Wolves has been plagued by inconsistency and howls from the basketball world about how vastly Minnesota overpaid to get him. So we’ll see how he responds upon his return, and also how well (or not) his teammates accept him. It should be noted that in the Wolves’ first two games against OKC this season, Gobert was their best player, averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds (Gobert was ejected from the third meeting for tripping Kenrich Williams, and didn’t play the fourth game).

Key Matchup: OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards

Two of the league’s more dynamic under-25 All-Stars could put on a show. Both are creative and daring and willing to take the big shot if necessary. Gilgeous-Alexander is coming off a solid outing (32 points) against the Pelicans with a strong second half; meanwhile, Edwards had arguably his worst performance of the season (nine points, four turnovers) against the Lakers. With the stakes high in a winner-moves-on contest, it would be surprising if either lays an egg. While they don’t exactly play the same guard position, expect the Wolves to throw Edwards on Gilgeous-Alexander in certain situations where size could be to the advantage of the Wolves’ guard. Given their ability to put other teams on red alert, both Edwards and Gilgeous-Alexander will likely command double teams in this game.

Prediction: Timberwolves

You figure the return of Gobert will have some impact, at least on the defensive side, and perhaps it is enough to help the Wolves offset the losses of Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniel (both of whom are out with season-ending injuries). Actually, the Wolves were missing a fourth person in their loss to the Lakers, because Edwards essentially didn’t show up, either. Minnesota has some face-saving to do, based on the unfortunate events of the last week, and every reason to do that in this game. OKC is a tall team but not a big team — there’s a difference — and that could prove costly against the tandem of Gobert and especially Karl-Anthony Towns, who has sparkled since his return from injury. Gilgeous-Alexander will be a handful for Mike Conley and anyone else who tries to check him, yet the Wolves have two of the three best players in this game and that should be enough of an edge.

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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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