The NBA has never had a final day of the regular season like the one that ended the 2021 campaign on Sunday. While the final stretch before the playoffs is typically defined by bad teams tanking to the bottom of the standings and good teams resting their best players for the postseason, this year gave us all 30 teams in action with massive implications up-and-down the standings.
We owe it all to the debut of the NBA play-in tournament.
After experimenting with the idea in the bubble last year, the league fleshed out the idea to determine the final two playoff seeds in each conference. Now we’re left with four teams standing in the East and the West trying to earn their way into the postseason picture.
The Los Angeles Lakers will play the Golden State Warriors, with the winner getting the No. 7 seed in the West. The Boston Celtics will play the Washington Wizards, with the winner getting the No. 7 seed in the East. The losers of those games will face the winner of Grizzlies/Spurs and Pacers/Hornets for the No. 8 seed in each conference.
LeBron James and Mark Cuban both ripped the introduction of the play-in tournament while their franchises were trying to avoid it, but it’s clear this idea is already a huge success even before the games are played. Here’s why.
The final stretch of the regular season was more captivating than ever
The introduction of the play-in tournament added so many more pressure points throughout the standings that gave almost every team something to play for in the final days of the regular season. Some teams were trying to get into the play-in, others were fighting to stay out of it, and there was added competition for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds where there was more margin for error in the play-in.
Every game felt like a must win for the Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks over the last two weeks. That wouldn’t have been the case under the old system as each team would have been comfortably in the postseason with not much to play for. All three teams finished 42-30 on the year, with the Mavs earning the No. 5 seed, Portland taking No. 6, and the Lakers falling to No. 7 because of tie breakers.
The East was also dramatic, with the Wizards surging up the standings and the Hornets free falling into the No. 10 seed by losing their last five games. Throw in the race for the No. 1 seed in the West between the Suns and Jazz coming down to the final day, and the jockeying between the Knicks, Hawks and Heat for 4-5-6 in the East, and there was more meaningful basketball played in the final days of the regular season than ever before.
That likely doesn’t happen without the play-in tournament.
It gave a chance to celebrate more players
More meaningful games on the schedule meant more opportunities for players to become cult heroes. No one personified this down the stretch more than Russell Westbrook.
Without the play-in tournament, maybe the Wizards would have been incentivized to tank with long shot playoff odds heading into the final two months of the season. Instead, Washington went on a tear with the goal of making the play-in, and ended up climbing all the way to the No. 8 seed. Along with co-star Bradley Beal, Westbrook was the driving force behind the run. His game remains as unrelenting as ever at age-32, and he played his best ball of the year over April and May. Breaking the triple-double record wouldn’t have felt the same if the Wizards were simply playing out the string.
There’s also going to be a huge opportunity for players to have breakout performances once the play-in actually starts. LaMelo Ball will have a big spotlight for the Hornets, while Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will have a chance to blow up even more for the Grizzlies. The Spurs also have a group of intriguing young players who could play the hero.
Real stakes and a bigger stage can only bring good things.
Lakers-Warriors could be the most watched game of the playoffs
It’s hard to imagine a better scenario for the play-in tournament than the one we got in the Western Conference: LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers against Steph Curry and the Warriors. The winner gets the No. 7 seed while the loser faces a do-or-die game against the winner of Spurs/Grizzlies.
James and Curry of course have a long history of competing against each other in the Finals. James proved he’s still the league’s top dog by leading LA to the championship in the bubble this year. Curry has been arguably the second best player in the regular season all season by leading the league in scoring.
Will this be the highest rated game of the entire postseason? Don’t be surprised if it is. Lakers-Warriors goes down May 19 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
It only builds more hype for the playoffs
We already have some great series set for the first round. In the East, the Bucks-Heat rematch from the bubble playoffs is going to be must-see. Knicks-Hawks will be super fun too as a battle of two teams who are thrilled to be in this position and now each think they can win this series. The West is giving us a Nuggets-Blazers series and Clippers-Mavericks rematch from the bubble playoffs last year.
The other matchups will be determined by the play-in tournament results. Regardless of the outcomes, it feels like the play-in format will lead to more interest in those series.
It’s debatable whether the play-in really decreased tanking this year — there were a lot of teams transparently tanking at the bottom of the standings — but it sure seems like a success in many other ways in its first year of existence before it’s even happened.
Expect the play-in tournament to be here to stay.