The upcoming fight among eight teams vying for four postseason spots finally materialized Sunday after a frenetic finish to the NBA regular season that set the stage for the league’s inaugural State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament.
All the action tips off Tuesday with a TNT doubleheader featuring the Eastern Conference portion of the tournament.
The Western Conference play-in matchups commence Wednesday with No. 9 seed Memphis hosting No. 10 San Antonio (7:30 ET, ESPN) followed by a clash between LeBron James and Stephen Curry, as the defending-champion Lakers host the Warriors (10 ET, ESPN) in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game.
“The key is how we come into practice tomorrow, our mentality to prepare,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, discussing his team’s upcoming matchup against the Wizards, after Boston fell 96-92 to the New York Knicks in Sunday’s regular-season finale. “We’ll cover what we need to cover, and then go out and play a fast game with a clear mind.”
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s slow down and dive into a quick explanation of how this all works.
The Play-In Tournament takes place just before the opening round of the NBA playoffs, and involves the teams finishing 7th-10th in their respective conferences.
The teams finishing the regular season sitting at seventh and eighth in each conference will receive two chances to win one game and advance to the playoffs, while the teams finishing at ninth and 10th in the standings will need to win two consecutive outings to earn a spot in the postseason.
So, on the Eastern Conference side, both Charlotte and Indiana would need to capture two straight wins to secure the No. 8 seed for the postseason, while the winner between the Wizards and Celtics automatically takes the seventh seed for the playoffs, which commence on May 22. The loser of the matchup between the Wizards and Celtics then goes on to host the winner between Charlotte and Indiana in a battle for the eighth and final playoff seed Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on TNT.
The loser of the Hornets-Pacers game is officially eliminated.
Charlotte enters the play-in clash with Indiana having concluded the regular season on a season-high five-game skid, dropping two consecutive road games and six of the last seven outside the friendly confines of the Spectrum Center.
Hornets coach James Borrego views his team’s recent struggles as fuel for a young team hungry to make a mark as soon as possible.
“Unfortunately, it hasn’t gone our way these last couple [of games], but we fight on, we march on.” Charlotte lost 115-110 on Sunday to the Wizards to fall to 10th in the conference standings.
Russell Westbrook dropped his 38th triple-double of the season, including this clutch 3-pointer, while a hobbled Bradley Beal poured in 25 points to fuel Washington’s victory.
“It’s great for our guys, a wonderful experience to go through this,” Borrego said. “I know it feels extremely painful right now, but there’s still more basketball to play. We’re just focused on Tuesday right now. The past is behind us. We move forward. We’ve earned the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference, and now we get a chance to play postseason basketball. You just have to go through it. There’s no script for this, there’s no practice for this. All of this is going into the bank and is only going to make us better from here. This one stings, but Tuesday night is a new season.”
On the Western Conference side of the bracket, the Grizzlies and Spurs face off in a single-elimination scenario, with the winner hitting the road to face the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game between the Lakers and Warriors on Friday for the eighth and final seed. The winner between Los Angeles and Golden State heads into the NBA Playoffs as the seventh seed.
Memphis and San Antonio, meanwhile, need to win back-to-back elimination games to advance.
“It’s just two games to get into the playoffs,” said Spurs’ center Jakob Poeltl, after San Antonio fell 123-121 to Phoenix on E’Twaun Moore’s 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining. “It’s far from an impossible task. It’s going to be tough, no question. But we are definitely capable of doing that.”
The Warriors likely feel similarly against the defending champs after closing out the season winning six in a row, as Curry captured the NBA scoring title with 46 points to lead Golden State to a 113-101 win over Memphis. The performance marked Curry’s 38th game with at least 30 points, and he’s racked up 30-point nights in 21 of his last 24 contests.
The Grizzlies and Warriors each entered the regular-season finale with 38-33 records on five-game winning streaks.
“[Steph] has never been better,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr. “I can say he’s been great for a long time. So, it’s hard to say he’s at his best now because he’s been like this for years. What I think is different this year is his supporting cast. We’ve got a much younger team. He’s been asked to do a lot more with this group, and he’s gone above and beyond what we’ve asked of him.”
Curry will need to do it again Wednesday at Los Angeles, which had hoped to avoid the State Farm Play-In Tournament.
Curry hoisted up a career-high 36 shots, and a career-high 22 3-pointers, including this one, in the win over Memphis.
“The first thing I told the guys in the locker room [is] no matter what anyone says, I appreciate what they’ve all brought to this season because it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t a steady climb at all even to get to this spot,” Curry said. “But I appreciate everybody out there committing to how we play, and that’s really unlocked what I do best [to] try to help myself and help out everybody else, especially on the offensive end of the floor.”
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