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The Thrill of the Play-in Race Provides a Blueprint for the NBA’s Future

Portland beat Brooklyn on Thursday in the most exciting game in the bubble. The format of the restart not only set the stage for Damian Lillard heroics—it offered a template for the league moving forward.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The biggest thrill of the NBA bubble—and really, the entire season to date—was a bout between two flawed, sub-.500 teams in the echo of an empty arena. Like all the best basketball, it was tense enough to slip into chaos. Damian Lillard hit an incredible shot to close the deficit early in the fourth quarter, only for his Portland teammates to allow an uncontested layup on the break. Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen pulled down three offensive rebounds on the same possession, but each attempt that followed felt very much like a young team striving for something just beyond its reach. The Blazers and Nets put on a great show Thursday night. Beyond that, their game was dramatic in a way that regular-season basketball, in all its excess, rarely allows.

All it took was a bit of invention. The NBA’s new play-in format pushed three Western Conference teams into must-win games on the same day. First came the Grizzlies, who held off the Bucks (minus a resting Giannis Antetokounmpo) to preserve their postseason chances. Then came the long-shot Suns, who closed out the Mavericks to cap a perfect 8-0 bubble run and keep hope alive. The results of those two games backed the Blazers into a corner; their only way forward was to win a single game, against a depleted Nets team that had refused to roll over for anyone. Cue the fireworks. The NBA atmosphere transforms when something of import hangs in the balance. It’s the difference between LeBron James picking a team apart and chilling through the first half. It’s the difference between a young team freelancing its way to a win and losing on the margins. Sometimes, it’s the difference between Kawhi Leonard playing and not.

In this case, the product told the story. CJ McCollum showed how much this game mattered by playing 44 minutes with a fractured vertebrae. This was likely the last opportunity for Brooklyn to compete against an opponent playing to win at all costs. (The team’s forecast in a first-round series against the Raptors is … unfortunate.) It showed. The Nets met the Blazers at their most desperate, matching one of the most dangerous scorers in the league shot for shot. When Caris LeVert missed his final attempt at the buzzer, giving Portland the win, Lillard folded over with his head down and his hands on his knees, almost too exhausted to be relieved.

The stakes of this game were as real as a pull-up from the logo. It just so happens that they were also manufactured; the only reason Portland was under this kind of pressure was because the looming threat of a play-in game allowed it, giving teams like Phoenix and San Antonio more to fight for than a hollow ninth-place finish. With that, the NBA managed to turn the race for the eighth seed—the least consequential element of the playoff landscape—into essential viewing. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of the Suns (who came to Orlando in 13th place at 26-39) and the Nets (who were so compromised by injuries and COVID-related circumstances that even their substitutes had substitutes) being in the bubble was met with public mockery. With the help of the new format, both found likable new roles in the A plot of the NBA’s seeding stage.

It is exceedingly clear that the play-in game should become a permanent fixture. If the competition for the eighth seed underwhelms (see: the Eastern Conference), the whole thing becomes a non-issue. Washington, for example, did not get nearly close enough to qualify. Yet we’ve now seen how the very possibility of making a play-in game can shift the way borderline playoff teams operate. Any mechanism that gives a greater number of teams a reason to compete in the latter stages of the season is a boon for the league—assuming it doesn’t otherwise interfere with the playoff structure.

But why stop there? The primary lesson of the NBA’s play-in madness this week is that even smaller, unobtrusive changes can have considerable benefits. Implementing the Elam ending supercharged the All-Star Game, an exhibition many thought lost to apathy. A slight flattening of the lottery odds already has curtailed some of the league’s most egregious tanking. Every regular-season game can’t feel as consequential as the Blazers’ win over the Nets, but why couldn’t there be more like it? Why couldn’t the league structure more ways for its games to actually matter?

The idea of a midseason tournament has never been more compelling. Thursday’s game was a pilot program, the bubble on the whole a more rigorous version of a tournament ground. Come Saturday, we’ll see the next round—this time with Portland in command as the eighth seed, while Memphis, which dropped to ninth, scraps to compete another day. The Blazers have to beat the Grizzlies just once to advance to a first-round series against the Lakers; the Grizzlies have to beat Portland twice.

The NBA could have these kinds of games every year if it wanted. And every year, the league and the NBPA could use the platform provided by those tournament games to raise awareness of social issues—not unlike what the players are doing now in supporting the Movement for Black Lives, and specifically seeking justice for Breonna Taylor. “The Russell Cup,” like Bill Russell himself, could bring together high-level basketball and real advocacy.

For now, the NBA’s top priority is rightly the health and safety of those in the bubble. Completing the postseason while avoiding a coronavirus outbreak is challenge enough. Next season is more of a mystery—and a rare chance for the league to make changes without the constraints of tradition. Depending on the state of the pandemic in the United States, the 2021 NBA season could be broken up into segments and held at neutral sites. Organizing one of those segments into a single-elimination tournament seems well within the league’s power, and certainly in its interest. The NBA features a fast-paced game of fairly gradual adjustments; part of the intrigue of any playoff series is seeing how two teams solve for one another over the course of weeks, often with one patient move at a time. Reduce that timeline to a single game with elimination on the line, and you have the kind of tournament dynamic that could reinvigorate the dog days of the regular season.

When the play-in format was first announced, some around the league considered it to be a gimmick—or, in more cynical interpretations, an attempt to shoehorn Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the playoffs. The reality is far more interesting, as much for what’s happening in Orlando as for what could be the future of the league.