When the idea of an NBA bubble to host the playoffs was initially floated all those long months ago, some thought it might provide an opportunity for the league to try out some unconventional playoff formats and methods. No better time to experiment than in what will be the weirdest postseason of basketball's lengthy history, right? Well, they ultimately didn't stray too far from the usual plans. Sixteen teams will be in the playoffs. It will be separated into Eastern and Western Conference brackets. No Round Robin in the lead-up, no higher seeds choosing their opponents, nothing like that.
But there will be one addendum this year, as long as the circumstances line up just right: a play-in game for the eighth seed in each conference. As a refresher, a play-in game would only occur if the eighth and ninth seeds are within four games of each other. In a scenario where multiple teams are within four games, whichever team is closest to the eighth seed would be rewarded the chance to fight for their playoff lives. If that happens, the two teams in question would play a maximum of two times; the team holding the eighth seed would only have to win one game to earn a playoff ticket, but the team holding the ninth seed would have to win two.
There was never really a hope that the Eastern Conference playoff race would get particularly interesting in that regard. The only East team that was invited and not already in the playoffs were the Washington Wizards, who were six games behind the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed before seeding games started up last week. The West, however, was an entirely different story. The Memphis Grizzlies held a comfortable three-game lead for the eighth seed, but the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, and Sacramento Kings all entered the bubble within striking distance.
What appeared to be the unspoken hope for the league was that Zion Williamson and his cadre of fun and exciting teammates would make a run that would result in a few play-in games against Ja Morant and his own cadre of fun and exciting teammates at worst, and a ratings windfall of a first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers at best. That hasn't happened, or at least not yet. The Pelicans stumbled out of the gate with two straight losses before righting the ship against Memphis and currently sit 2.5 games out of the eighth seed. Not all hope is yet lost for a ratings boom.
But what has happened is the non-Pelicans teams have won, and won with regularity. Won enough to the point that there are currently five teams (including the Pelicans) eligible for the play-in spot, and it's clearly going to come down to the last game. The Suns have won each of their three seeding games, capped off by an awesome Devin Booker game-winner over both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Blazers eked by the Rockets last night to stay in the race with two wins in three games. The Spurs, despite no LaMarcus Aldridge or Trey Lyles, won their first two matchups and made an epic comeback against the Sixers before Shake Milton broke their hearts. The Kings are the one exception here, having lost two of their first three and aren't poised to make a run unless they turn it around quickly.
If the play-in games were held tomorrow, Portland would be the team given the right to play Memphis. But each team has five games remaining. The Spurs, Pelicans, and Suns are all within 2.5 games of Portland. There is very little room for error all around here. It could very well come down to tie-breakers or a margin of less than a game to determine who goes home and who gets a chance to stay in Orlando. Every game matters. It's going to be great to watch.