How Does the NBA Play-In Tournament Work?

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At the end of the 2020-21 NBA regular season, but prior to the first round of the postseason, the NBA will be conducting a play-in tournament. The tournament will be used to determine the final two playoff spots. 

The tournament, which features four teams in each conference, was implemented to minimize tanking during the final weeks of the regular season. 

As Sports Illustrated's Howard Beck recently noted, 24 teams were still competing with about a dozen games left on the schedule.

"That isn’t just dramatic by recent NBA standards. It’s downright revolutionary," Beck wrote. 

“Twenty-four is the highest we’ve ever had, in the history of the league, with a month left,” Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told SI.

With the play-in tournament set to begin on May 18, here's everything you need to know: 

When is the play-in tournament?

The play-in tournament will begin Tuesday, May 18 and conclude Friday, May 21.

What is the format?

The team with the seventh-highest winning percentage in each conference will host one game against the team with the eighth-highest winning percentage, with the winner in each conference earning the No. 7 seed.

In another game, the team with the ninth-highest winning percentage in each conference will host the team with the tenth-highest winning percentage. While the loser of that game will be eliminated from postseason contention, the winner of the No. 9 vs. 10 game will play the loser of the No. 7 vs. 8 game. 

The winner of that last game—between the 7/8 loser and the 9/10 winner—in each conference will earn the No. 8 seed.

Which teams are in the play-in tournament?

In the Western Conference, the No. 7 seed Lakers and No. 8 seed Warriors will play to determine who advances to the first round. The No. 9 Grizzlies and No. 10 Spurs will face off in an elimination game, with the winner advancing to meet the loser of the Lakers-Warriors game.

In the Eastern Conference, the No. 7 Celtics and No. 8 Wizards will play with a spot in the first round on the line. The No. 9 Pacers will host the No. 10 Hornets, with the winner facing whoever loses between Boston and Washington.

How has news of tournament been received?

Following a Lakers loss in early May to the Raptors, LeBron James criticized the league's new play-in tournament format.

"Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired," James said.

The loss dropped the Lakers into a three-way tie with the Mavericks and Blazers for the No. 6 seed. It marked the team's sixth loss in seven games.

James was not alone in voicing his recent criticism over the new format. In mid-April, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called the addition of the play-in tournament an "enormous mistake." At the time of Cuban's comments Dallas was in the play-in tournament field.

The NBA board of governors, which includes Cuban, had unanimously approved the implementation of the play-in tournament this offseason. 

James himself has also expressed varying sentiments about a possible format change. Ahead of the NBA bubble last summer, James floated the idea of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference being decided through a short series. Previously in 2018, though, James called the idea "wack."

When do the playoffs start?

The NBA postseason officially gets underway on May 22.

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