After much anticipation and even more debate, the play-in round is here—and with it the headliner of the NBA season thus far, in prime time Wednesday. But Lakers-Warriors is one of only four play-in games spread over the first two nights, each of which comes with its own intrigue and story lines. As a reminder: The winner of the 7-8 matchup claims the 7-seed in each conference; the loser plays the winner of the 9-10 game, with that game’s winner claiming the 8-seed.
Let’s dive in, with an observation or two about each game, before the mini-tournament tips off Tuesday night.
Western Conference Play-in
(7) Lakers vs. (8) Warriors
If the Lakers advance past the play-in round—as they do in 86 percent of simulations from The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine—they will not be a typical no. 7 or 8 seed. However, it’s worth considering just how unprecedented a path they’ll have to trace if they want to repeat as champions.
No team seeded seventh or eighth has ever won the NBA title. In fact, only one team seeded lower than fourth—the 1994-95 Rockets, seeded sixth—has ever lifted the trophy. Since the playoff field expanded to 16 teams in 1984, only one no. 7 seed and one no. 8 seed have won more than a single series.
Playoff Outcomes for Low Seeds, 1984-2020
|Lost in First Round||69||69|
|Lost in Second Round||4||4|
|Lost in Conference Finals||1||0|
|Lost in Finals||0||1|
Both of those longest-lasting teams benefitted from strange circumstances. The 1986-87 SuperSonics finished with a losing record and the no. 7 seed, but upset the no. 2 Mavericks in the first round—at the same time that the no. 6 Rockets upset the no. 3 Trail Blazers, giving Seattle an easier second-round opponent. The Sonics reached the conference finals before losing to the Lakers in a sweep.
The other team, more famously, is the 1998-99 Knicks, who reached the Finals as the East’s no. 8 seed. That was a weird season, with a shorter schedule due to the lockout and no clear favorite after the collapse of the Bulls. Like those Knicks, the 2020-21 Lakers are a veteran team with ample playoff experience, playing in a weird shortened season with no clear favorite. And like the 1986-87 SuperSonics, they could benefit from another upset too, if they beat the Warriors to grab the no. 7 seed and then the no. 6 Blazers beat the Jamal Murray–less Nuggets in the first round.
But the Lakers’ path won’t be easy. Only two teams this season boasted a top-six offense and a top-six defense, per Cleaning the Glass: the Jazz and Suns, a.k.a. the Lakers’ two potential first-round opponents.
The Warriors, L.A.’s opponent in Wednesday’s play-in game, don’t have even the Lakers’ slim ambitions of a title this season—not with Klay Thompson hurt and a thin rotation. But Steph Curry’s Herculean run has made more possible for Golden State than anyone imagined after the team’s first few games.
Curry added one more resplendent stat to his long list this season with his 46-point performance in Sunday’s regular-season finale. That tally boosted his season scoring average to 32 points per game—allowing him to “score his age,” in his age-32 season. (Basketball-Reference defines a player’s seasonal age as his age on February 1.) He became the first player 32 or older to manage that feat, and only the fifth player age 30 or above:
- Rick Barry, Allen Iverson, and James Harden at 30
- Jerry West at 31
- Steph Curry at 32
As one might expect, scoring one’s age is much more common at lower totals. In addition to Curry, players to score their age this season were Anthony Edwards (19); Zion Williamson (20); Luka Doncic (21); Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, and Collin Sexton (22); De’Aaron Fox and Brandon Ingram (23); Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, and Jaylen Brown (24); Zach LaVine and Nikola Jokic (25); Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo (26); and Bradley Beal (27). Curry has a half-decade or more on all of them.
(9) Grizzlies vs. (10) Spurs
Unlike the Lakers and Warriors, two teams in win-now mode, the West’s no. 9 and 10 teams have a longer view toward contention with their current rosters. The Spurs are led by a fleet of young guards, and 25-year-old Jakob Poeltl unseated 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge as the team’s starting center. In Memphis, meanwhile, 12 Grizzlies played at least 500 minutes this season, and 10 of them are 25 or younger.
But a pair of veterans (and former teammates in Toronto) still pace the young teams’ offenses. All-in-one stats like box plus-minus, estimated plus-minus, and RAPTOR all agree on the two teams’ most valuable offensive players this season: for the Grizzlies, Jonas Valanciunas, and for the Spurs, DeMar DeRozan.
Valanciunas is the Grizzlies’ oldest rotation player, having celebrated his 29th birthday earlier this month, but the bruising center enjoyed career highs in points (17.1 per game), rebounds (12.5), and scoring efficiency (64 percent true shooting). When he shared the floor with Ja Morant, the Grizzlies scored 117.4 points per 100 possessions—ranking in the 81st percentile of lineups, per Cleaning the Glass. Even if Jaren Jackson Jr. is the big man of the Grizzlies’ future, Valanciunas remains mighty important in the present.
DeRozan, meanwhile, led the Spurs in points (21.6 per game) and assists (a career-best 6.9 per game), as well as scored more “clutch” points than any player in the league not named Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal. In a league being overrun by 3-point shooting and youth, it’s a pair of veterans with 40 made 3s combined this season who might decide this game.
Eastern Conference Play-in
(7) Celtics vs. (8) Wizards
This matchup will provide the greatest test of whether momentum matters in the NBA postseason: The Wizards enter the play-in on a 17-6 stretch while the Celtics stumbled to a 4-9 finish with dispiriting losses to the Thunder and Cavaliers.
Yet it’s important not to read too much into two teams’ recent results; season-long performance is still a more meaningful predictor of playoff success. In 2019, I looked for evidence of momentum in a number of different ways and found very little. Since the playoff field expanded to 16 teams in 1984, for instance, the overall upset rate in postseason series was 22 percent; the upset rate when the underdog had finished the season hotter was barely higher, at around 25 percent.
Maybe that dynamic is different over a single game instead of a full series—but the Odds Machine still favors Boston by a three-point margin, even though Washington has more momentum and even though Jaylen Brown is out.
The Wizards are hot, but they have benefitted from potentially flukish clutch play of late. Since their run began on April 7, the Wizards have played 77 minutes in “clutch” situations (defined by NBA.com as when the score is within five points in the last five minutes), by far the most in the league. And they have a plus-21 net rating in those minutes. But before April 7, the Wizards’ clutch net rating was minus-9.
Washington is probably somewhere in the middle, like most teams, for whom clutch performance is random and subject to small samples.
(9) Pacers vs. (10) Hornets
On paper, the East’s 9 vs. 10 game is the least appealing of the play-in quartet, pitting two sub-.500 teams that limped to the finish. But if styles make fights, then Tuesday’s first game could prove surprisingly spicy, as the Hornets’ dynamic guards stare down the Pacers’ dominant big man.
The Hornets haven’t found a workable center rotation all season, but coach James Borrego’s secret weapon is a three-guard lineup featuring Terry Rozier, Devonte’ Graham, and LaMelo Ball. That trio shared the floor for 280 possessions this season, per Cleaning the Glass, and outscored opponents by a mind-boggling 20.4 points per 100 possessions—which places those lineups in the 100th percentile this season.
That showing is reminiscent of the Thunder’s three-guard group last season, when lineups with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder had a plus-31.4 net rating, also best in the league, albeit in a much larger sample of 850 possessions.
One point of caution for Charlotte: It’s hard to slice and dice these samples given their already limited size, but it’s worth noting those three-guard lineups were much better with Gordon Hayward at the 4-spot than without him. And Hayward is expected to miss the play-in round, which removes some playmaking zest from this otherwise feisty unit.
On Indiana’s side, a rotation in flux—Victor Oladipo was traded; almost every key player was injured at some point or another—and coaching drama meant a usually solid team never jelled. But Domantas Sabonis was a statistical standout amid all that strife. He’s not quite Nikola Jokic as a creator, but he fits the modern archetype as a center who doubles as his team’s chief offensive hub.
Most notably, Sabonis joined the short list of players to average at least 20 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists per game in a season:
- Oscar Robertson
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Wilt Chamberlain again
- Kevin Garnett
- Domantas Sabonis
Can Charlotte hope to slow Sabonis’s offense? Does Indiana have the guards to match the Hornets’ trio? The teams might prove an oddly compelling match, trading strength for weakness and weakness for strength.