Originally introduced as a way for teams to navigate losing players to COVID-19, the NBA’s play-in tournament that kicked off Tuesday, May 18, is likely here to stay.
In the 2019-20 NBA bubble, a modified play-in was introduced, allowing teams to duke it out for the eighth seed if they came within a half-game of one another. The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies took part in the game, with Portland advancing to the playoffs after the eight seeding games took place.
The reason for the play-in was simple: fairness. In the bubble, some teams played more games than others or were more affected by COVID-19 opt-outs. The Blazers in particular lost Trevor Ariza to an opt-out decision. Memphis went 2-6 compared to Portland’s 6-2 record in the bubble seeding games, which led to an eventual play-in game.
The NBA liked that idea so much that it further developed and expanded the play-in game for a 2020-21 season that was devastated by COVID-19. This version of the play-in features the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds from each conference playing for the seventh seed, while the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds play in an elimination game. From there, the loser of the No. 7/8 matchup faces off against the winner of the No. 9/10 matchup for the eighth seed.
While some players, coaches and fans expressed disappointment with the play-in, the model performed well enough to become a staple of the NBA.
“Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” said Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James.
Despite a first-game blowout, the play-in model featured some of the most exciting games of the season.
According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the play-in games performed better than many of the NBA’s regular-season games sans opening night. TNT reported that the Boston Celtics/Washington Wizards broadcast averaged 2.5 million viewers, That number is the highest of any TNT broadcast of the season outside of opening night.
NBA TV ratings to dissect: TNT reports that Celtics/Wizards averaged 2.5 million viewers, topping any regular-season TNT telecast post-Opening Night. Pacers/Hornets, despite an early start and a blowout score, averaged 1.4 million.
Lakers/Warriors, in other words, shall be big.
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) May 19, 2021
And even though the Charlotte Hornets/Indiana Pacers game kicked off in a 6:30 p.m. timeframe and was a 27-point blowout, the game averaged 1.4 million.
That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of viewers for the entire tournament, with two games left to be played.
Not only are ratings fantastic, but the games themselves have an atmosphere unlike many others. Akin to the NCAA’s March Madness tournament, each of these games have been played with ferocious intensity. The highly anticipated Lakers/Golden State Warriors game came down to the last shot and featured some of the best defense seen in a game all year.
More 3Q defense to offense from the Lakers. LA finished #1 in Defensive Rating this past season. Expect that to continue being their calling card on their chase to repeat pic.twitter.com/aIRfyKxCdM
— Pro Intuition (@Pro_Intuition) May 20, 2021
Even though the San Antonio Spurs trailed by as many as 21 points against the Memphis Grizzlies, the team battled back and ended with just a four-point loss. All of these games set the stage for even more intense elimination games between the Grizzlies & Warriors and Wizards & Pacers.
Furthermore, this essential expansion of the playoffs gives teams more incentive to keep playing games down the stretch. Teams like the Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans would’ve been eliminated far earlier from the eighth seed had there been no play-in game. Without an incentive to reach the playoffs, these teams likely would’ve tanked their remaining games away for better lottery odds. If the NBA wants to further combat tanking, this is a good way to do it.
Other players took notice that the play-in provides a great way for young players to get valuable postseason experience.
“We have to realize that this is the playoffs,” said Wizards star Bradley Beal. “You understand that every play is important, there is a sense of urgency. … It’s very new and fresh for a lot of our guys.”
The play-in also gives teams a chance to make the postseason that they would not have had in a regular year. Consider the Pacers, who played most or all of the year without Myles Turner and T.J. Warren. The team went on to be ravaged by injury, losing Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon for huge stretches of time. In fact, the team’s projected starting five never played a single game together.
Now, the Pacers have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs despite injuries and an unsettled locker room in the wake of their recent coaching reports. Even the Hornets had to be thankful for the opportunity, regardless of the outcome, considering their own streak of bad injury luck.
Regardless of who gets the eighth seeds in each conference after the play-in tournament wraps up, there’s no arguing that the league is in a better financial situation because of it. While it might not be every player’s favorite situation, and it does need some tinkering, the play-in games are here for the long run.
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