NBA Play-In Tournament FAQs – How Does the NBA Play-In Tournament Work?

For the third straight year, the National Basketball Association will adopt the NCAA elimination format by kickstarting its postseason with a Play-In tournament.

The Birth of the Play-In Tournament

Since 1984, the NBA playoffs have had its fair share of twists and turns. Many arguments have been put forward as regards the best format for the playoffs.

The league looked to have reached a final consensus during the 2016 NBA Season when it announced that the playoffs will feature eight teams with the best record from each of its two conferences. This meant that there were no guaranteed playoff spots for division champions as it had been the case over the years.

However, this new development was short-lived. The Coronavirus pandemic hit the whole world, and the league sought out solutions to keep the 2020 postseason alive. The NBA Bubble was introduced; it featured a condensed 22 teams to wrap up the regular season, and a play-in option for any No. 9 seed that finished within four games of the No. 8 seed. While this option was only activated between No. 8 Trail Blazers and No. 9 Grizzlies, it birthed the Play-In tournament.

The NBA announced that it would be adopting a Play-In format at the start of the 2021 season, giving two additional teams a chance to make the playoffs. Initially, the top eight teams in each conference earned a straight ticket to the playoffs. But the new format meant only teams seeded one to six earn automatic qualification, while teams seeded seventh to tenth had to play for the final two playoff spots in their respective conferences.

How Does the Play-In Tournament Work?

The Play-In tournament features six games, three for each conference. The team with the seventh best record during the regular season will face the team with the eighth best record, and the No. 9 seed will face the No. 10 seed.

The winner of the No. 7 vs No. 8 matchup automatically qualifies for the playoffs, and gets the 7th playoff seed; the loser of the No. 9 vs No. 10 matchup is eliminated from playoff contention. The loser of the No. 7 vs No. 8 matchup will then face the winner of the No. 9 vs No. 10 matchup for the 8th playoff spot.

The higher seed team earns home-court advantage as is the case in the playoffs.

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The 2021 Play-In Tournament

The Play-In Tournament was first implemented in 2021, and featured No. 7 Boston Celtics, No. 8 Washington Wizards, No. 9 Indiana Pacers, and No. 10 Charlotte Hornets in the East. The Western Conference Play-in tournament featured No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers, No. 8 Golden State Warriors,  No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies, and No. 10 San Antonio Spurs.

The Celtics beat the Wizards in the No. 7 vs No. 8 game, while the Pacers eliminated the Hornets in the No. 9 vs No. 10 matchup. The Wizards defeated the Pacers to claim the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both Boston and Washington were later eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the No. 1 seed Brooklyn Nets and No. 2 seed Philadelphia 76ers, respectively.

In the West, the Lakers defeated the Warriors to claim the 7th playoff spot, while the Grizzlies defeated the Spurs and Warriors to claim the 8th playoff spot. Both LA and Memphis exited the first round to No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns and No. 2 seed Utah Jazz, respectively.

The 2022 Play-In Tournament

The 2022 Eastern Conference Play-in tournament featured No. 7 Cleveland Cavaliers, No. 8 Brooklyn Nets, No. 9 Charlotte Hornets, and No. 10 Atlanta Hawks. The Western Conference teams were No. 7 LA Clippers, No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves, No. 9 San Antonio Spurs, and No. 10 New Orleans Pelicans.

The Nets beat the Cavs 115-108 to claim the 7th playoff seed, while the Hawks thumped the Hornets and Cavs to advance to the playoffs. The Timberwolves defeated the Clippers, while the Pelicans defeated the Spurs and Clippers, respectively to claim the final Western Conference playoff spot.

Brooklyn got swept by No. 2 seed Boston in the first round of the playoffs and Atlanta lost to No. 1 seed Miami after 5 games. Minnesota lost to No. 2 seed Memphis after six games and NOLA lost to No. 1 seed Suns after six games.

No play-in team has ever made it past the first round of the playoffs.