We’re just 62 days away from tipoff of the NBA’s first Play-In Tournament, which was approved in November for the 2020-21 season on a one-year basis.
So, we’re already fantasizing about some of the potential matchups on the horizon.
Before going there, though, here’s a FAQ on the Play-In Tournament. It is set to take place during the window after the conclusion of the regular season and just before the opening round of the playoffs involving the teams finishing seventh through 10th in their respective conferences. (The dates to mark on the calendar are May 18-21, FYI.)
Basically, the teams finishing the season seventh and eighth in both conferences will receive two shots at winning one game to advance to the postseason, while the teams sitting at ninth and 10th will need to win two consecutive outings to earn a playoff berth.
So, once the regular season ends, the teams in both conferences with the seventh-highest winning percentages will host the squads finishing at eighth in their conferences in a play-in game, with the winner of those contests taking the seventh seeds in the East and the West.
For the teams finishing ninth and 10th in their conferences, the format is virtually the same as above. The ninth-place teams will host the clubs with the 10th-highest winning percentages in their conferences. The winners of those contests will advance to play the losers of the games involving the seventh and eighth seeds on the road, with the victors of those outings taking the eighth seeds in the postseason for their respective conferences.
In the Eastern Conference, the 11th place Toronto Raptors are currently just two games behind the eighth-place New York Knicks. You see a little more separation in the West, where the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder — tied at 11th — are four games back of the eighth-place Dallas Mavericks. The seventh and 10th spots in the West are separated by just three games.
There’s still plenty of basketball left to play.
But that doesn’t stop us from taking a quick look at five potential matchups for the upcoming Play-In Tournament that we think would serve as a perfect appetizer for postseason NBA action:
San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks
Everything’s big in Texas, they say. This won’t be any different with a pair of the league’s best, not to mention longest-tenured, coaches in Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle matching wits for a berth in the playoffs. On the surface, the Mavericks appear to hold the advantage here since they’re led by a transcendent star in Luka Doncic, not to mention they’ve already beaten the Spurs twice so far this season. In fact, since the 2019-20 season, Dallas is 5-1 against San Antonio. But the playoffs are a different story, which is where Popovich’s greatness could come into play. These teams haven’t met in the postseason since 2014, when the Spurs knocked off Dallas 4-3 in the opening round.
Atlanta Hawks vs. Charlotte Hornets
The way the Hornets and Hawks are rolling, we might not get a chance to see this matchup. But hey, we can dream, right? Could you imagine young Atlanta star Trae Young and rookie sensation LaMelo Ball going at one another in a playoff atmosphere? From what we’ve seen so far, you can bet Ball won’t be scared. Charlotte beat Atlanta during a pair of matchups in January, including one in which Ball became the youngest player in league history to post a triple-double (22 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists). Pay attention to the April 11 matchup between these teams because it could serve as a potential Play-In Tournament preview.
Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
First off, shout-out to first-time All-Stars Zach LaVine and Julius Randle. Both players lead historic franchises that are fighting to make it back into the postseason. You can expect a major scrap between the teams if this matchup somehow materializes, especially when you consider the fact these clubs haven’t clashed in the postseason since 1996. This isn’t exactly the playoffs, but it’s close enough. The storyline of Knicks guard Derrick Rose, a Chicago native, facing the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2008 adds an extra level of intrigue. Both teams haven’t been in the same playoffs since 2013.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors
Popovich and Steve Kerr sound great as a future presidential ticket, but there’s some interesting recent history between these franchises. Remember, the Spurs eliminated Golden State in the Western Conference semifinals in 2013, when the Warriors were still learning to win. Then, after San Antonio had captured its fifth title, the Warriors knocked out the Spurs in embarrassing fashion in 2017 and 2018, winning eight of the nine playoff games en route to NBA titles those years. The teams are now vastly different, not to mention younger, with both seeking to return to form as perennial contenders.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans
This one’s easy: Ja Morant vs. Zion Williamson in a matchup featuring the top two picks of the 2019 NBA Draft and the future faces of this league. Morant captured the 2019-20 Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award, but Memphis hasn’t fared well against New Orleans since both players came into the league. The last time the Grizzlies defeated the Pelicans (Feb. 9, 2019), neither player was in the NBA. New Orleans has beaten Memphis five games in a row, but the stakes with a potential postseason berth hanging in the balance should raise the level of competitiveness. Both of these franchises appear to be in the beginning stages of building something special.
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