NBA play-in tournament explained: What to know about league’s playoff format change, which teams are involved

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The 2020-21 NBA regular season is officially over, but the action isn’t about to stop just yet with the NBA’s play-in tournament underway through May 21. We now know which teams will be playing in the tournament, after all the dust settled following a wild Sunday finale. 

This is the second time that the league has used the play-in tournament, with the first being in the bubble in Orlando last season, and, to the surprise of no one, it continues to be a hot topic with players and coaches across the league. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was critical of the league’s decision to implement the play-in tournament for this season, despite the format being considered a success inside the Disney Bubble. “Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” LeBron said of the play-in format. 

These comments echoed what we’d previously heard from Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who took aim at the NBA’s format change for the playoffs this season. 

“I don’t understand the idea of the play-in [tournament],” Doncic said. “You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point of that.” 

While some of the league’s stars are clearly not on board with the change in format, we won’t be getting into any of the arguments against the play-in tournament here. Instead, let’s take a closer look at just what exactly this tournament is, how it works and which teams are involved. 

What is the play-in tournament?

The play-in tournament is a new — and hopefully exciting — way for the league to determine the eight playoff teams from each conference. A version of the idea was implemented last summer during the restart in the bubble, but this season will be the first time the full play-in tournament is in use. It could also be the last. As it stands, the idea was only approved by the league’s Board of Governors for this season. Assuming there are no major problems it will likely remain in place moving forward, but that is not a guarantee as of now.  

Which teams are involved?

There are eight teams involved in the play-in tournament, four per conference. Here are the seedings and matchups:

Eastern Conference

Western Conference

How does the play-in tournament work?

Before the implementation of the play-in tournament, the top eight seeds in each conference would make the playoffs when the regular season ended. That’s not the case anymore. Now, only the top six seeds in each conference are guaranteed a trip to the postseason.

The teams that finish seventh and eighth in each conference now join the teams that finish ninth and 10th in a four-team play-in tournament to determine the final two playoff spots. Here’s how the format works:

  • The seventh-place team will host the eighth-place team in a one-game matchup. The winner of that game will earn the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. 
  • The ninth-place team will host the 10th-place team in a one-game matchup. The loser of that game is eliminated. 
  • The loser of the seventh place vs. eighth place game will host the winner of the ninth place vs. 10th place game in a one-game matchup. The winner of that game will earn the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, and the loser of that game will be eliminated. 
  • From that point, the playoffs will proceed as usual.

When is the play-in tournament?

The play-in tournament will  will run from May 18-21. The playoffs will begin on May 22. Here’s the full schedule for the tournament. 

Game 1 (East 9/10): Indiana Pacers vs. Charlotte Hornets

  • When: Tuesday, May 18 | 6:30 p.m. ET
  • Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse — Indianapolis, Indiana
  • TV: TNT | Live stream: fuboTV

Game 2 (East 7/8): Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards

  • When: Tuesday, May 18 | 9 p.m. ET
  • Where: TD Garden — Boston, Massachusetts
  • TV: TNT | Live stream: fuboTV  

Game 3 (West 9/10): Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs

  • When: Wednesday, May 19 | 7:30 ET
  • Where: FedEx Forum — Memphis, Tennessee
  • TV: ESPN | Stream: WatchESPN

Game 4 (West 7/8): Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors

  • When: Wednesday, May 19 | 10 p.m. ET
  • Where: Staples Center — Los Angeles, California
  • TV: ESPN | Stream: WatchESPN

East: Winner of Game 1 (9/10) vs. Loser of Game 2 (7/8)

  • When: Thursday, May 20 | 8 p.m. ET
  • Where: TBD
  • TV: TNT | Live stream: fuboTV  

West: Winner of Game 3 (9/10) vs. Loser of Game 4 (7/8)

  • When: Friday, May 21 | TBD
  • Where: TBD
  • TV: ESPN | Stream: WatchESPN  

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