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NBA Play-In Games Explained

Liam McKeone
Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers / Harry How/Getty Images

Sunday marked the final day of the 2020-21 NBA season. Playoff seedings were up in the air until the last seconds ticked off the last game of the day. Now we're set. And on Tuesday, the first-ever iteration of the NBA play-in tournament will begin.

The league experimented with the concept during the playoff bubble in Orlando last year. The justification then was that the last third of the season was lost to COVID and the teams who were just outside the postseason picture when the season went on hold deserved a fair shot at the playoffs within the limited timeframe available. The NBA then took that format, altered it slightly, and installed it in full for this season.

Like many new things, it's a touch confusing. I am here to help clarify. Here's all you need to know about the play-in tournament.

NBA Play-In Tournament

There will be four teams from each conference participating in the play-in tournament this year, the 7-10 seeds in both the East and West. That means the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers, and Charlotte Hornets will play from the Eastern Conference, and the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Memphis Grizzlies are from the Western Conference.

What does that mean, exactly? Here's how it's supposed to go.

The 7th seed will play the 8th seed in Game 1. In the East, that's the Celtics vs. the Wizards. In the West, that's the Lakers vs. the Warriors. The winner of that game will secure the 7th seed for postseason. The loser drops to the 8th seed and will have to play the winner of Game 2 in order to keep their playoff spot. So if the Warriors win, they will face the Suns in the first round of the Western playoffs as the 7-seed, while the Lakers would drop to the 8-seed and have to play one of the Grizzlies or Spurs to keep the 8-seed.

NBA Play-In Explained

In Game 2, the 9th seed will take on the 10th seed. In the East, that's the Pacers vs. the Hornets, and the Spurs will play the Grizzlies in the West. The winner of that game will earn the right to play the loser of Game 1 for the last spot in the playoff bracket. The loser goes home. If the Pacers win, the Hornets are eliminated and Indiana will play the loser of Celtics-Wizards for the eighth seed.

Game 3 will take place between the loser of the 7-8 game and the winner of the 9-10 game in both conferences. The victor will enter the playoffs as the eight seed.

All in all, six games will take place over four days. The playoffs then begin in earnest. The schedule is as follows:

NBA Play-In Schedule


6:30 p.m. ET: Charlotte Hornets vs. Indiana Pacers

9:00 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards


7:30 p.m. ET: San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies

10:00 p.m. ET: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors


8:00 p.m. ET: Loser of Celtics/Wizards vs. Winner of Pacers/Hornets


TIME TBD: Loser of Lakers/Warriors vs. Winner of Spurs/Grizzlies