This week marks the second annual NBA play-in tournament and the field will once again feature a slate of All-Star talent.
In the Eastern Conference, Kevin Durant, Trae Young and LaMelo Ball will all be fighting for a spot in the playoffs before the postseason officially begins on Saturday.
Since it’s still a new feature, here’s a brief explanation of how the tournament works.
The seventh-place team in each conference will host the eighth-place club. The winner is guaranteed a playoff spot as the seven seed. The loser of that game will play the winner of the ninth and tenth-place game for the eighth and final seed.
Games begin Tuesday night and wrap up Friday evening, so playoff matchups and seeds will not be officially set until the eve of the postseason.
Eastern Conference Play-in Tournament Schedule:
Tuesday, April 12
7 p.m. ET (TNT): No. 8 Cavaliers vs. No. 7 Nets (-8.5)
Wednesday, April 13
7 p.m. ET (ESPN): No. 10 Hornets vs. No. 9 Hawks (-4.5)
Friday, April 15
Time TBD (ESPN): Winner of Hawks/Hornets vs. loser of Cavaliers/Nets
Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament Teams
No. 7 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
First play-in opponent: Cavaliers—won season series, 3-1
Record since All-Star Break: 13-10
The team with the third-best odds to win the NBA Finals is also two losses away from missing the playoffs altogether. That’s life with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on your team. The odds are in their favor even with their backs up against the wall.
It took all year, but finally both stars are in the lineup and Brooklyn is winning basketball games. Durant missed all of February with an MCL injury and Irving only recently was granted the ability to play in home games after New York City loosened its COVID-19 vaccine restrictions. The Nets have been playing catchup as a result, and Ben Simmons, the key return in the James Harden trade, has yet to play for Brooklyn and won’t take part in the play-in tournament.
It’s fully possible we never see the full, healthy, available version of the Nets this season. What we do know: Brooklyn ranks 10th in offensive rating and 20th in defensive rating. Outside of Durant and Irving’s individual greatness and Seth Curry’s outside shooting, Steve Nash relies on contributions from NBA stars of yesteryear—Andre Drummond, LaMarcus Alrdidge and Blake Griffin—and a few young pieces like Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton. Still, Brooklyn was half a shoe size from an NBA Finals trip last year with an injured James Harden and no Irving. The Nets are the sleeping giant that’s seemingly all but assured to come out of the play-in tournament and threaten whichever team draws them in the first round.
No. 8 Cleveland Cavaliers (44-38)
First play-in opponent: Nets—lost season series 1-3
Record since All-Star Break: 9-15
Injuries hampered this young, fun Cavaliers team that was well on its way to avoiding the play-in tournament altogether. Still, they’re still ahead of schedule. Cleveland’s win total was set at 27.5 and it passed that mark in January. The Cavs are one win away from their first playoff appearance since LeBron James left in 2018.
The development of third-year point guard Darius Garland and a vastly improved defense are to credit for the Cavaliers’ leap. Garland leads the team in scoring (21.8 ppg), ranks sixth in the NBA in assists (8.6 apg) and shoots exceptionally well from the field, free-throw line and three-point line. Rookie of the Year favorite Evan Mobley with first-time All-Star Jarrett Allen made for a stellar shot-blocking duo and helped Cleveland rise from 25th in defensive rating to fifth.
Rounding out the rest of J. B. Bickerstaff’s primary rotation are Lauri Markkanen, in his first year with the team, Kevin Love, thriving in a newfound role as a handsomely paid sixth man, Caris LeVert, who the front office added just before the trade deadline and second-year forward Isaac Okoro.
Offense is not a strength for the Cavaliers, even though they’re much improved from a season ago in that department. They do, however, hold teams to a little more than 105 ppg, one of the best marks in the league. And if Allen (finger) is healthy for the play-in tournament, Cleveland’s oversized frontcourt can create matchup advantages.
No. 9 Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
First play-in opponent: Hornets—tied season series, 2-2
Record since All-Star Break: 15-9
The Hawks did what they needed for their campaign to live on past the “boring” regular season. Atlanta made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago and never regained the steam the team had in the summer.
After teetering at or under .500 for much of the season, the Hawks strung together a winning streak at the end of March to earn a spot in the play-in tournament.
Atlanta’s 26th-place defensive rating all but cancels out its No. 2 offensive rating. The man largely responsible for that near-league-best offense would be Trae Young. He’s top five in the league in scoring (28.2 ppg) and assists (9.7 apg) and second in offensive points added behind MVP favorite Nikola Jokic.
Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter flank Young on the wings and contribute to the Hawks’ 37.2 three-point percentage (No. 2 in the NBA). The defensive burden largely falls to Deandre Hunter, who was injured for the playoff run, and big man Clint Capela. Forward John Collins is a plus on both sides of the ball, but he hasn’t played since March 11 due to a sprained finger. There is no timeline for his return.
A small sample size showcase like the play-in tournament was designed for a team like the Hawks. Specifically, it was made for a player like Young, who’s apt to tally 40-plus points and 10 or more assists on any given night. The Hawks have the best offense of any team in this tournament and can’t be counted out with Young.
No. 10 Charlotte Hornets (43-39)
First play-in opponent: Hawks—tied season series 2-2
Record since All-Star Break: 14-8
The Hornets return to the play-in tournament after taking a beating in this spot a season ago. The team has improved dramatically since then. For one, it’s largely healthy. Besides Gordon Hayward, who will miss the play-in tournament, every starter played in at least 70 games this season. And secondly, the offense took a massive leap from 23rd in offense rating to eighth. So what could hold back a team that employs three players who average 19-plus ppg? The same kind of defense that allowed 144 points in the play-in game a season ago and somehow regressed since then.
Charlotte’s defensive rating was 16th last season and fell to 24th, the second-worst of any play-in- or playoff-bound team. The Hornets allowed 144 points in back-to-back games just last week. They (sometimes) get away with it by simply outscoring their opponents, whether that takes 115, 120 or 130 points.
Fourth-year pro Miles Bridges took a huge leap and leads the team in scoring (20.3 ppg). Sophomore LaMelo Ball is just behind him at 20.1 ppg and also adds 6.6 rebounds and a team-best 7.6 assists. Terry Rozier is the third member of the 19-plus club and Hayward and Kelly Oubre Jr. both add better than 15 ppg.
Charlotte operates at one of the fastest paces in basketball and leads the NBA in assists (28) with so many field-goal attempts and opportunities.
This team is too young and too poor on defense to do much of anything beyond the play-in. That's why the Hornets have far and away the worst odds to win the East. Similar to the Hawks, Charlotte can certainly get hot and go for 140 points, though its defense is just as likely to surrender as many, if not more.
Brooklyn beats Cleveland in the first game for the seventh seed and Atlanta beats Charlotte to stay alive. Then, I like the Hawks to beat the Cavaliers to snatch up the eighth seed and sneak back into the playoffs, but my lack of faith in Cleveland ultimately depends on whether Jarrett Allen takes part in the play-in tournament.
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