2024 SoFi Play-In Tournament

2024 SoFi NBA Play-In Tournament: Your guide to Tuesday's matchups

The Play-In Tournament begins as 4 teams in the West battle for a shot to clinch a playoff berth.

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The 2024 NBA postseason tips off with the SoFi Play-In Tournament. Get ready for the action with previews and predictions for Tuesday’s matchups, which will determine the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and the two teams that will play Friday for No. 8.

West: (8) L.A. Lakers @ (7) New Orleans Pelicans (7:30 ET, TNT)

The winner: Advances to face Denver in the first round as the No. 7 seed.

The loser: Plays the winner of Tuesday’s Warriors-Kings game Friday to determine the No. 8 seed.

Regular-season results: Lakers won series 3-1.

Keep your eyes on: New Orleans’ resiliency

That’s what will be required. The Lakers had their way with the Pelicans all season, winning three matchups by a total of 77 points (and suffering one 20-point setback). New Orleans has home court for this one and tradition suggests it is hard to beat a playoff team two times in a row on its floor, but L.A.’s spanking of the Pels in the regular-season finale offered little in the way of confidence-building.

Even if New Orleans gets LeBron James & co. into a tight game, there is this to discourage the Pelicans: the Lakers had the best mark in the NBA, 18-6, in games decided by five points or fewer. Better not look to the referees for help, either. The Lakers outscored opponents from the foul line all season by an average of 4.6 points; they were 5.0 points better per game than the Pels, getting 24% more trips to the line.

Forward Brandon Ingram made an encouraging return Sunday after missing 12 games with a bruised left knee. He’s been effective historically (23.5 ppg) against the team that traded him for Anthony Davis, but a one-game tune-up might not be enough. Sharpshooter guard CJ McCollum is hot with seven consecutive games scoring at least 25 points.

But New Orleans let the sixth seed slip through its grip Sunday, is under pressure to nail down the seventh seed here and might be in trouble of missing the eighth if forced to play again Friday.

Key matchup: LeBron James vs. Zion Williamson

Given their physiques, this is a matchup that might be more exciting at a WrestleMania or on an NFL line of scrimmage. But it should be compelling for however many minutes they log against each other in this one. One has played 282 playoff games in 16 postseason appearances, the other is playing in the first post-82nd game of his career (Play-In doesn’t count as “playoff”).

This is the big stage for two big men, so tune in while they’re both involved.

James averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 11.8 assists in four games against New Orleans. Williamson wasn’t as good but still posted 20.3, 5.8 and 5.5, impressing his elder along the way.

“He’s a beast,” James said. “I mean, it’s almost impossible to stop him.” The Lakers star said he is willing to do whatever it takes for this game, including trading some offense for defense.

Prediction: Lakers

There has been some noise about the Lakers possibly managing their Play-In logistics in a way – losing this game, then beating the winner of Warriors-Kings – as a way to avoid finishing No. 7 and facing repeat tormentor Denver in the first round. Beyond wienie, if they actually tried to duck the Nuggets, it would force L.A. to play two elimination games, fire up the Kings or Warriors and stick James and crew with a short turnaround from Friday to Sunday. That all might happen, but not by design. It’s their mastery of the Pelicans all year that will decide this one.

(10) Golden State Warriors vs. (9) Sacramento Kings (10 ET, TNT)

The winner: Plays the loser of Tuesday’s Lakers-Pelicans game on Friday to determine the West’s No. 8 seed.

The loser: Done for the season.

Regular-season results: The teams split the series 2-2.

Keep your eyes on: How the Kings get stops

A year ago, spread out across the final two weeks of April, these teams battled through seven games before Golden State advanced, riding Steph Curry’s 50-point outburst in the finale. Now they’re back on the same court for another “Game 7,” win-or-go-home experience, just without the preliminaries.

In fact, not only haven’t these teams faced each other six times in recent days, they haven’t played since Jan. 25. And that – a 134-133 Kings victory in Sacramento – was their lone meeting after November. So while they’re familiar with each other in broad strokes, there have been personnel changes and tweaks to playbooks that each team will need to react to quickly.

The most significant change lately in their overall play has been Sacramento’s tightened defense. Since March 1, the Kings have improved from 20th in the league (116.4 points per 100 possessions) to third, their defensive rating at 109.5. It was hard work driven by necessity, with their attack sagging after injuries to Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk.

So some of the gaudy numbers put up by the Warriors in the season series – 120 points per game, 43.3% on 3s – might take a hit in this one.

Key matchup: Domantas Sabonis vs. Golden State’s committee in the middle

Sacramento’s big man just wrapped a likely second straight All-NBA season, notching 77 double-doubles and 26 triple-doubles. His numbers were off only a bit against Golden State, but “a bit” might be enough in single elimination.

The Warriors can throw different matchup looks at Sabonis, from rookie starter Trayce Jackson-Davis to veterans Draymond Green and Kevon Looney. Last year in the first round, Golden State’s preference was that Sabonis shoot more and pass less. But he reportedly has become more comfortable taking the shots the Warriors give him – and he still averaged 9.5 assists against them in four games.

Golden State doesn’t look to its bigs for much scoring, so they can focus on containing Sabonis. Keeping him busy defensively can provide an energy sink, too, whether it means finding Jackson-Davis on the perimeter or coping with Curry’s or other Warriors’ attacks on the rim.

Prediction: Warriors

This might come down to pedigree vs. desperation. Home or road, that hasn’t meant much in the teams’ recent history. Sacramento sputtered to the regular season’s finish line, losing five of seven. Not having Huerter or Monk – who combined to average 23.5 points in the season series – is a tangible blow, forcing the Kings into an eight-man rotation recently. Golden State is hitting this game on a roll, apart from the bus ride up I-80, having won 10 of its last 12. Momentum, an experienced core of vets and Curry’s demonstrated knack for rising to occasions should decide this.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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