NBA

NBA Playoffs: How Does the NBA Play-In Tournament Work?

The NBA playoffs have undergone quite a few changes over the years and yet another is upon us with the implementation of the new play-in tournament. The NBA tested a play-in round last year in the Orlando bubble, which only ended up affecting the Western Conference, and there’s no guarantee that this new play-in tourney will go beyond this season as the 2021 postseason will serve as a trial run for the new format that now gives 10 teams in each conference a chance to make the playoffs.

So how exactly does the NBA play-in tournament work?

The NBA tested a play-in round in the Orlando bubble

As the NBA was unable to play a full schedule in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league instituted a play-in round when play resumed in the Orlando bubble in late July.

Under this format, if the team with the ninth-best record in a conference finished within four games of the team with the eighth-best mark, those two teams would compete in a play-in series. The No. 8 seed needed to win just one game to advance to the actual playoff bracket while the No. 9 seed had to win two.

This scenario actually played out in the Western Conference as the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, who had the same record as the Phoenix Suns but won the No. 9 spot in a tiebreaker, finished just a half-game back of the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers at the conclusion of a regular season. Portland won the first game of the play-in series, thus eliminating the need for a second game, and advanced to the West bracket, where they were eliminated by the eventual champion LA Lakers.

There was no need for a play-in round in the East as the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic finished six games ahead of the Charlotte Hornets.

Under the new format, the top six teams in each conference automatically make the NBA playoffs

The NBA playoffs logo
The NBA playoffs logo | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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As far as the 2021 NBA play-in tournament is concerned, both conferences will be taking part as 10 teams from the West and 10 teams from the East will have a chance to make the actual NBA playoffs bracket.

But it’s not as if all 20 teams will be participating in the play-in portion of the NBA playoffs as the top six teams in each conference will automatically qualify for the postseason and, as per usual, will be seeded based on their regular-season record.

How does the NBA play-in tournament work?

As for the teams that finish Nos. 7-10 in the NBA standings, they’ll enter the new play-in tournament, which will begin on May 18, two days after the end of the regular season. Here’s the breakdown.

  • In Game 1, the No. 7 seed will host the No. 8 seed with the winner automatically receiving the seventh seed in the NBA playoffs bracket. However, the No. 8 seed is not eliminated.
  • In Game 2, the No. 9 seed will host the No. 10 seed. The winner moves on to Game 3 while the loser is completely eliminated.
  • Game 3 then features the loser of Game 1 hosting the winner of Game 2 with the victor clinching the No. 8 seed.

Easy enough, right?