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May Madness: Play-In Tournament gives underdogs a shot to make playoff noise

The seventh and eighth seed in each conference will be determined through the Play-In Tournament held in May.

New York and Boston have been lingering around the Play-In Tournament spots this season.

We’ve reached April and, in a normal season, the playoffs would begin in about 15 minutes. But this of course is 2020-21, a break from the norm, where instead a Play-In Tournament will begin in a little more than month.

In case you forgot, the NBA seized upon this novelty of last fall and made it a staple. Which means, before the intensity of the playoffs, the league will present the super-intensity of the Play-In Tournament on May 18-21, where four teams in each conference will either see their season go up in smoke, or toward the next step, in a matter of days.

Here’s a reminder about the Play-In Tournament — May Madness, if you will:

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.

For the purpose of this analysis, we’ll take stock of the teams holding at least 12th place at the moment. In the East, with the Nets, Bucks and 76ers sitting at considerable distance from everyone else, we’ll examine several teams behind them, who are bunched together and separated by only a few games. In the West, there’s a reasonable margin between sixth and seventh, so we’ll sneak-preview teams 7 through 12. And this list is in no particular order:

Miami Heat: There’s no question who stands the most to lose by being forced into a Play-In, or worse, missing the playoffs altogether. Not only did the Heat reach The Finals last season and haven’t suffered a major injury this season, but they just added Victor Oladipo on the cheap. It’s hard to find an excuse should Miami fall into a late-season bind, or a reason for the Heat to even be in an elimination tourney. If a team with Oladipo, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Trevor Ariza, Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic manages to fall short — in the East, no less — it’d be a crime against basketball. It would also mark the first time an Erik Spoelstra team underachieved.

Can Jimmy Butler and the Heat recapture their bubble magic in 2021?

New York Knicks: Gotham is giddy over the Knicks being in playoff contention this late into the season. Even if they fall into a Play-In situation, it would mean progress for a franchise looking to shake free of a lost decade. New York, more than most teams, is being compared to its recent past, so what it is showing now is positive. Julius Randle doesn’t appear to be a one-hit wonder and RJ Barrett is emerging as a top second option. After that, whoever emerges from the rest of the rotation is anyone’s guess, although their defense is keeping them in contention. The Knicks have a scary stretch run on the schedule — from May 5-16, they play the Nuggets, Suns, both LA teams, the Spurs, Hornets and Celtics. If they’re at .500 or hauling a losing record before playing those games, that could mean big trouble.

Dallas Mavericks: The probability of Dallas being in the Play-In tourney is high as it seems unlikely to rise to six or drop out of the picture. Assuming that’s the case, the Mavs need to start loading up on the help around Luka Doncic. For starters, Kristaps Porzingis is searching for consistency and it would help if he shows better results near the rim at both ends of the floor. The lack of a great high-volume 3-point shooter hurts a team that leans so heavily on Doncic isolations (he’s fifth in the NBA in total isolation plays). Tim Hardaway Jr. can be that player on some nights, but he’s streaky. That means the Mavericks will go as far as Doncic takes them — which at this point looks like the seventh seed.

Take a look at some of Luka Doncic's best plays from the 2020-21 season.

Boston Celtics: Do you think the Celtics awaken some mornings in a cold sweat over a nightmare that had them sitting on the fence in the playoff picture, only to rub their eyes and realize it was no nightmare? No doubt, the Celtics are wondering why they’re still in this position with several weeks left to play. But such is the somber reality for a team despite two All-Stars. The good news is they’re one winning streak away from rising as high as fourth place and away from the desperate pack. Does Evan Fournier help them shake free of the slumber? They’ll need him and better efficiency from Kemba Walker (39.7% shooting, his worst since 2014-15) and a quick study by Robert Williams to spare themselves the indignity of the Play-In. Everyone expects the Celtics to eventually figure it out. But, they’ve been mediocre for a while now and the longer they stay trapped in this reality, the riskier it gets for their chances.

San Antonio Spurs: They missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 23 seasons. Miss it again, and it’s suddenly a different kind of streak. The Spurs are indeed a dangerous team because DeMar DeRozan (21.1 ppg, 7.2 apg) is hooping and the young core around him is maturing. Also, coach Gregg Popovich hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to lead a team to the postseason. If Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker keep improving, the Spurs would be the team nobody wants to see in the Play-In.

Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta suddenly became a healthier team once coach Lloyd Pierce was fired, which was bad for Pierce, good for the Hawks’ chances of grabbing a top-six guaranteed playoff spot. It helps, too, that Trae Young seemingly is playing more under control under interim coach Nate McMillan. And of course, that John Collins is playing for money. With Young, Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and the newly-arrived Lou Williams, the Hawks bring shooters every night. And, they have Clint Capela (15.1 ppg, 14.2 rpg) around to clean up their misses and provide rim protection (2.3 bpg). Although the Hawks won eight straight recently, their surge came courtesy of a soft schedule. And speaking of cushy, the Hawks’ final 16 games includes playing the Pacers, Wizards and Magic twice and the Rockets once. Things are set up perfectly for Atlanta to avoid the Play-In or, at worst, grab the seventh seed.

Indiana Pacers: It doesn’t appear that TJ Warren is going to be around to bail them out, which means the Pacers must figure how to reverse a disappointing season on their own. Maybe they will, with Caris LeVert healthy and becoming more comfortable with his new surroundings. As much as Myles Turner has regressed offensively, he’s making a legit run for the All-Defensive team, or maybe Kia Defensive Player of the Year, with his rim-protection. This is a team comprised mostly of role players — Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell — who do their jobs fairly well. However, it just isn’t reflected in the standings. Time for Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon to up their game, if possible, to put the Pacers in a better place.

Memphis Grizzlies: They’ve held it together all season while waiting for big man Jaren Jackson Jr. to heal from knee surgery. And now, Jackson is poised to make that long-awaited debut this month. Then we’ll see how long it takes him to whip into game shape and resume the pace he set for himself as one of the league’s bright young talents. If he starts quickly and looks comfortable, the Grizzlies can make a serious run up the standings. The ceiling for Jackson and Ja Morant is probably seventh place, and that would make for a solid finish. This is a team with some upside because of Jackson, and that makes the Grizzlies dangerous and probably a favorite in a Play-In.

Relive some of Ja Morant's best ball fakes from his career thus far.

Chicago Bulls: They declared themselves all-in with the midseason trade for Nikola Vucevic … and then went into a tailspin and fell to 10th place. Hopefully for Chicago’s sake, this is a temporary condition. There’s nothing to be gained by missing the playoffs, and evidently the Bulls believe so, because that’s why they added a second All-Star next to Zach LaVine. He and Vucevic seem compatible on the floor, so now it’s up to the supporting cast to fall in line. The Bulls are encouraged by the improved results from Lauri Markkanen and rookie Patrick Williams, along with the steady play of veteran Thaddeus Young. Now that they’ve pressed the accelerator with the trade, it would seem weird — and certainly disappointing — if the Bulls remain in 10th and be required to fight for their playoff lives.

Charlotte Hornets: Until LaMelo Ball grabbed his wrist in pain, and a foot flared for Gordon Hayward, everything was swell … and then it was swollen. The Hornets didn’t exactly fold when their entertaining rookie went down last month, but their position in the East did take a precarious turn when Hayward’s injury doubled their trouble. And now, a playoff spot can’t be taken for granted for a team that hasn’t had one in five seasons. Assuming that Hayward recovers in time and Terry Rozier continues to play solid ball, the fate of the Hornets could fall to youngsters like Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk. Both are playing for contracts, and in the case of Graham, his play has gone up a tick since winter and he’s easing the sting of losing Ball. It would be surprising if the Hornets fall into the Play-In Tournament, but all it’ll take is an unfortunate losing streak. They’re a lot closer to 10th place than third place.

Devonte’ Graham (left) and Malik Monk will play a crucial role in deciding Charlotte’s Play-In Tournament fate.

Golden State Warriors: OK, sure, when you lose by 53 to Toronto (as the Warriors did on April 2), you don’t look like a playoff or Play-In Tournament team. But keep in mind, the Warriors still have Stephen Curry, and he’s the most accomplished and decorated player of anyone whose team is outside of the top-six spots in the West. That means not only are the Warriors unlikely to fall beyond 10th place, but they’d be very dangerous in a Play-In because of Curry. That said, even being in that position would be weird for a team not long removed from a championship dynasty. Yes, this was supposed to be a holding-pattern season while waiting on Klay Thompson to heal. But right now, by sitting on the edge of playoff contention, the Warriors find themselves in a worst-case scenario — and can only hope their next step won’t be on a banana peel.

Stephen Curry lights up the Hawks for a game-high 37 points, but Golden State fell to Atlanta.

Toronto Raptors: The Raptors were ready for the plug to be pulled when Kyle Lowry was dangled at the trade deadline, but the franchise icon was never dealt and so here they are. In order to be taken seriously, the Raptors will need to go all 2019 on everyone and rip off an eight-game winning streak. That’s not to suggest a team with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and newcomer Gary Trent Jr. are incapable of doing so … it just would be so unlike them in 2020-21. They’d better make their move soon, or else.

Washington Wizards: The Wizards briefly showed a heartbeat when they won eight of 11 games in February, only to disappear again — perhaps for good. The Bradley Beal-Russell Westbrook tandem never gained traction in terms of making a difference in the standings, while Davis Bertans failed pay dividends after cashing in last offseason. Still, 10th place is within reach, and if they claim that spot, Beal and Westbrook could erupt and pull a surprise or two.

Sacramento Kings: The Kings were ready to be buried, and then they awakened in mid-March to win seven of eight games and delay (if not cancel) the funeral. Harrison Barnes has elevated his game, and when you combine him with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, it’s not as if the Kings are lacking in scorers. They’ll probably put up the good fight, maybe right until the end, even if they don’t make a serious claim for the 10th spot.

New Orleans Pelicans: New Orleans is actually outside the top 10 in April? Yes, such is the case despite a pair of young foundational forwards in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, who combine for roughly 50 ppg. To date, the Pelicans qualify as a disappointment and may finish the season with that distinction. But even in the West — where the competition is steep, even near the bottom — the Pelicans can’t be counted out quickly because they have such vast firepower.

Zion Williamson scored 38 and had six assists and five rebounds vs. Dallas.

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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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