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How does the NBA play-in tournament work? Dates, projections and rules explained

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Stephen A. fears the Lakers might not make it past the play-in game (1:37)

Stephen A. Smith explains why he believes the Lakers might not even make it out of the play-in tournament. (1:37)

What's at stake for the NBA play-in tournament as teams enter the final days of the regular season?

For the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champions might have to begin their quest for a repeat in the play-in tourney while waiting for LeBron James to return to full health. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Hornets are hopeful that they can return to the postseason for the first time since 2016. Teams looking to avoid the play-in tourney will get the benefit of additional rest and time to prepare for their first-round opponent.

The play-in adds a fascinating wrinkle to the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. Teams were already less incentivized to tank games down the stretch because of the flattened lottery odds instituted in 2019. Now that the top 10 teams in the standings will finish the regular season with at least a chance to make the playoffs, more franchises will stay in the mix for longer. Some people, like LeBron and Dallas Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic, are less than thrilled about the prospect of the play-in tournament, but we should expect some heated contests as teams push to make it into -- or above -- the play-in fray.

Here's everything you need to know about the play-in setup this season, including the most likely matchups according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI), when and where it's happening and how it works.


When is the NBA play-in tournament?

The last day of the NBA regular season is scheduled for May 16. The play-in will begin May 18 and end May 21, with the first round of the NBA playoffs tipping off May 22.


How does the NBA play-in tournament work?

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The NBA play-in tournament explained

Scoop Jackson breaks down the new rules for the NBA's play-in tournament.

There will be six total games involving eight teams as part of the play-in tournament, split up between the two conferences.

The teams that finish Nos. 1-6 in each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots, while team Nos. 7-10 in the standings will enter the play-in. Any team that finishes worse than No. 10 will be in the lottery. Since there is a chance for teams to finish with an uneven number of games played because of COVID-19 complications, the NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings.

Here's how the games will work:

  • Game 1: The No. 7 team in the standings by winning percentage will host the No. 8 team, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The losing team gets another chance in Game 3.

  • Game 2: The No. 9 team will host the No. 10 team, with the winner moving on to Game 3. The loser is eliminated and enters the NBA draft lottery.

  • Game 3: The loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup will host the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup, with the victor grabbing the No. 8 seed in the postseason. The loser of Game 3 also enters the lottery.

This means that the teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages will have two opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot, while the teams with the ninth-highest and 10th-highest winning percentages need to win two straight games to advance.

How important is seeding within the play-in race?


Which teams are projected to make the NBA play-in tournament?

If the season ended today, the matchups would be:

Western Conference

Eastern Conference

MORE: Current NBA standings

And here are the most likely participants in each conference, via projections using BPI, which factors in injuries, strength of schedule and the on-court impact of each rotation player.

Most likely to make West Game 1 (No. 7 vs. No. 8)

Most likely to make West Game 2 (No. 9 vs. No. 10)

Most likely to make East Game 1 (No. 7 vs. No. 8)

Most likely to make East Game 2 (No. 9 vs. No. 10)