Play-In Tournament gives underdogs a shot in East

We’ve reached April and, in a normal season, the playoffs would begin in about 15 minutes. But this of course is 2020-21, a break from the norm, where instead a Play-In Tournament will begin in a little more than month.

In case you forgot, the NBA seized upon this novelty of last year and made it a staple. Which means, before the intensity of the playoffs, the league will present the super-intensity of the Play-In Tournament on May 18-21, where four teams in each conference will either see their season go up in smoke, or toward the next step, in a matter of days.

Here’s a reminder about the Play-In Tournament – May Madness, if you will:

The format for the new play-in tournament beginning Tuesday, May 18 and concluding Friday, May 21. Source: NBA
Image: The format for the new play-in tournament beginning Tuesday, May 18 and concluding Friday, May 21. Source: NBA.com

The teams with the seventh- and eight-best records in the regular season will meet. The winner of that game is officially the seventh place finisher. The teams with the ninth- and 10th-best records will also meet. The loser is done for the year. The winner plays the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game, and the winner of that game claims the eighth and final playoff spot.

Essentially, the key is finishing among the top six in the conference and avoiding such a tournament. Or at the very least, avoid falling to nine or 10 and needing to win twice to get a playoff spot.

For the purpose of this analysis, we’ll take stock of the teams holding at least 12th place at the moment. In the East, with the Nets, Bucks and 76ers sitting at considerable distance from everyone else, we’ll examine several teams behind them, who are bunched together and separated by only a few games.

Miami Heat

Victor Oladipo hands off to Bam Adebayo for the Miami Heat
Image: Victor Oladipo hands off to Bam Adebayo for the Miami Heat

There’s no question who stands the most to lose by being forced into a Play-In, or worse, missing the playoffs altogether. Not only did the Heat reach The Finals last season and haven’t suffered a major injury this season, but they just added Victor Oladipo on the cheap.

It’s hard to find an excuse should Miami fall into a late-season bind, or a reason for the Heat to even be in an elimination tourney. If a team with Oladipo, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Trevor Ariza, Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic manages to fall short – in the East, no less – it’d be a crime against basketball. It would also mark the first time an Erik Spoelstra team underachieved.

New York Knicks

Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (11) drives past New York Knicks' Julius Randle (30) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, April 5, 2021, in New York. 2:19
Highlights of the New York Knicks’ clash with the Brooklyn Nets in Week 16 of the NBA

Gotham is giddy over the Knicks being in playoff contention this late into the season. Even if they fall into a Play-In situation, it would mean progress for a franchise looking to shake free of a lost decade. New York, more than most teams, is being compared to its recent past, so what it is showing now is positive.

Julius Randle doesn’t appear to be a one-hit wonder and RJ Barrett is emerging as a top second option. After that, whoever emerges from the rest of the rotation is anyone’s guess, although their defense is keeping them in contention. The Knicks have a scary stretch run on the schedule – from May 5-16, they play the Nuggets, Suns, both LA teams, the Spurs, Hornets and Celtics. If they’re at .500 or hauling a losing record before playing those games, that could mean big trouble.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum
Image: Jayson Tatum

Do you think the Celtics awaken some mornings in a cold sweat over a nightmare that had them sitting on the fence in the playoff picture, only to rub their eyes and realise it was no nightmare? No doubt, the Celtics are wondering why they’re still in this position with several weeks left to play. But such is the sombre reality for a team despite two All-Stars.

The good news is they’re one winning streak away from rising as high as fourth place and away from the desperate pack.

Does Evan Fournier help them shake free of the slumber? They’ll need him and better efficiency from Kemba Walker (39.7 per cent shooting, his worst since 2014-15) and a quick study by Robert Williams to spare themselves the indignity of the Play-In. Everyone expects the Celtics to eventually figure it out. But, they’ve been mediocre for a while now and the longer they stay trapped in this reality, the riskier it gets for their chances.

Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) works against New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Atlanta. 2:12
Highlights of the New Orleans Pelicans’ visit to the Atlanta Hawks in Week 16 of the NBA

Atlanta suddenly became a healthier team once coach Lloyd Pierce was fired, which was bad for Pierce, good for the Hawks’ chances of grabbing a top-six guaranteed playoff spot. It helps, too, that Trae Young seemingly is playing more under control under interim coach Nate McMillan. And of course, that John Collins is playing for money.

With Young, Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and the newly-arrived Lou Williams, the Hawks bring shooters every night. And, they have Clint Capela (15.1 ppg, 14.2 rpg) around to clean up their misses and provide rim protection (2.3 bpg).

Although the Hawks won eight straight recently, their surge came courtesy of a soft schedule. And speaking of cushy, the Hawks’ final 16 games includes playing the Pacers, Wizards and Magic twice and the Rockets once. Things are set up perfectly for Atlanta to avoid the Play-In or, at worst, grab the seventh seed.

Indian Pacers

Indiana Pacers' Caris LeVert and Edmond Sumner celebrate during the second half of their game against the Pistons 4:06
Caris LeVert says he’s getting better each game after a 28-point output and hitting the clutch triple down the stretch to beat the Pistons

It doesn’t appear that TJ Warren is going to be around to bail them out, which means the Pacers must figure how to reverse a disappointing season on their own. Maybe they will, with Caris LeVert healthy and becoming more comfortable with his new surroundings. As much as Myles Turner has regressed offensively, he’s making a legit run for the All-Defensive team, or maybe Defensive Player of the Year, with his rim-protection.

This is a team comprised mostly of role players – Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell – who do their jobs fairly well. However, it just isn’t reflected in the standings. Time for Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon to up their game, if possible, to put the Pacers in a better place.

Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9) gets a dunk over Indiana Pacers guard Edmond Sumner (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. 1:55
Nikola Vucevic scores 32 points and 17 rebounds in the Chicago Bulls’ win over the Indiana Pacers in Week 16 of the NBA

They declared themselves all-in with the midseason trade for Nikola Vucevic… and then went into a tailspin and fell to 10th place. Hopefully for Chicago’s sake, this is a temporary condition. There’s nothing to be gained by missing the playoffs, and evidently the Bulls believe so, because that’s why they added a second All-Star next to Zach LaVine. He and Vucevic seem compatible on the floor, so now it’s up to the supporting cast to fall in line.

The Bulls are encouraged by the improved results from Lauri Markkanen and rookie Patrick Williams, along with the steady play of veteran Thaddeus Young. Now that they’ve pressed the accelerator with the trade, it would seem weird – and certainly disappointing – if the Bulls remain in 10th and be required to fight for their playoff lives.

Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) after missing a 3 point shot against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 13, 2021. 0:20
LaMelo Ball dodges with a 360 pirouette then drains a three-pointer for the Charlotte Hornets over the Toronto Raptors

Until LaMelo Ball grabbed his wrist in pain, and a foot flared for Gordon Hayward, everything was swell… and then it was swollen. The Hornets didn’t exactly fold when their entertaining rookie went down last month, but their position in the East did take a precarious turn when Hayward’s injury doubled their trouble. And now, a playoff spot can’t be taken for granted for a team that hasn’t had one in five seasons.

Assuming that Hayward recovers in time and Terry Rozier continues to play solid ball, the fate of the Hornets could fall to youngsters like Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk. Both are playing for contracts, and in the case of Graham, his play has gone up a tick since winter and he’s easing the sting of losing Ball. It would be surprising if the Hornets fall into the Play-In Tournament, but all it’ll take is an unfortunate losing streak. They’re a lot closer to 10th place than third place.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. (33) celebrates after making the game-winning, three-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards Monday, April 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. 0:19
Gary Trent Jr scores a three pointer in the last second for the Toronto Raptors to defeat the Washington Wizards 103-101

The Raptors were ready for the plug to be pulled when Kyle Lowry was dangled at the trade deadline, but the franchise icon was never dealt and so here they are. In order to be taken seriously, the Raptors will need to go all 2019 on everyone and rip off an eight-game winning streak. That’s not to suggest a team with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and newcomer Gary Trent Jr. are incapable of doing so … it just would be so unlike them in 2020-21. They’d better make their move soon, or else.

Washington Wizards

Russell Westbrook contributed 35 points, 22 assists and 14 rebounds as Washington overcame Indiana in Monday's NBA action. 1:59
Russell Westbrook made the NBA’s first ever triple-double to top 35 points and 20 assists as Washington overcame Indiana in Monday’s action

The Wizards briefly showed a heartbeat when they won eight of 11 games in February, only to disappear again – perhaps for good. The Bradley Beal-Russell Westbrook tandem never gained traction in terms of making a difference in the standings, while Davis Bertans failed pay dividends after cashing in last offseason. Still, 10th place is within reach, and if they claim that spot, Beal and Westbrook could erupt and pull a surprise or two.

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