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A Guide to the 2023 NBA Play-In Tournament

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USA News-Sports Division April 12, 2023
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A Guide to the 2023 NBA Play-In Tournament

The 2022–23 NBA regular season ended on Sunday with all 30 teams playing their 82nd and final game.  Many teams already had their postseason fates and seeding locked in prior to Sunday.  Those teams either rested their starters or didn’t play them altogether.  (Thanks load management!)  However, there were many teams still playing for something on the final day of the season.

The Eastern Conference’s top-5 seeds have been in place for a week or two.  The Milwaukee Bucks clinched the #1 seed in the East and home-court advantage throughout the 2023 NBA Playoffs.  The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are the #2 and #3 seeds.  Many believe this year’s champion will be one of the East’s top three teams.  The Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks will match up in the first round as the 4/5 matchup.   The only mild surprise is the Brooklyn Nets holding off the Miami Heat for the 6th and final guaranteed first-round playoff spot. 

That leaves the Miami Heat (7th), Atlanta Hawks (8th), Toronto Raptors (9th), and the Chicago Bulls (10th) as the four teams vying for the Eastern Conference’s 7 and 8 seeds via the Play-In.  Those four teams had been locked in as “Play-In” teams at a minimum for about a week.  More on that in a minute.

The Western Conference was another story.  It truly was the Wild, Wild West!  Eight teams were battling for 6 spots over the season’s final weeks.  The 5 through 10 seeds in the West were what seemed like daily.  After Sunday’s final games on 2 games separated the 4th seeded Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers who finished 7th in the West and will need to qualify for the NBA playoffs via the Play-In.

The Denver Nuggets held on to the West’s top seed despite a less than impressive finish to their season.  The Memphis Grizzlies took the two-seed, followed by the biggest surprise team of this NBA season – The Sacramento Kings.  There needs to be a major investigation If Mike Brown is NOT voted NBA Coach of the Year this year.  Phoenix will take on the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1 as the West’s 4/5 matchup.  Finally, the defending Champion Golden State Warriors escaped the Play-In and finished as the West’s 6-seed.

The final seeding for the West’s Play-In was just as crazy.  The Lakers rode a hot finish to the regular season to take the 7-seed.  They are followed by the 8-seed Minnesota Timberwolves, who their regular season finale despite the Rudy Gobert/Kyle Anderson bench incident.  The New Orleans Pelicans (9th) and Oklahoma City Thunder (10th) round out this year’s Western Conference Play-In participants.  What’s even crazier is that Dallas Mavericks were 4th in the West when they traded for Kyrie Irving.  The Mavs went 9-17 since acquiring Irving and fell out of the playoff picture altogether on the season’s final weekend.  They will be watching the Play-In from home as will the Utah Jazz, who were vying for a Play-In spot but finished 2-8 down the stretch and 3 games out of a Play-In berth.  That’s not bad for a team that many thought would be a sure lottery team.

The Bucks and Celtics eagerly await to find out who their opponents will be in their opening-round playoff matchups in the East.  The Nuggets and Grizzlies will do the same in the West.  About this whole NBA Play-In Tournament thing…

I HATED it.  With a passion.  At first…

I thought Adam Silver and the NBA were trying too hard when they announced the implementation of the Play-In Tournament.  Why fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with.  Teams play 82 games in a long season to try qualifying for the NBA Playoffs in hopes of having a chance to make a run at a championship.  Why give two more teams another game or two as a second chance to do something they couldn’t accomplish in an 82-game season?  I believed, and still do to a point, that it was a cop-out. 

I quickly realized why the NBA was doing it – money.  That’s six more games, three in each conference. That really means six more games of TV, ticket, and other stadium related revenue.  The NBA must not have been making enough money.  Something strange happened when the NBA Play-In Tournament started its current format in 2021.  The Play-In produced solid matchups and some pretty good games.  The NBA instantly produced Game 7-like atmospheres BEFORE the actual NBA Playoffs started!  The Play-In gave us the birth of the Warriors/Grizzlies rivalry, “Grand Theft” Alvarado (also known as the coming out party for Jose Alvarado of the Pelicans), and Patrick Beverley celebrating a Play-In victory as if his team had won the championship!

It also doesn’t hurt that it gives my beloved Chicago Bulls at making the NBA Playoffs as the 10-seed in the East.  So, you’re saying there’s a chance?  Here’s how the Play-In Tournament Works…

The 7-seed plays the 8-seed in each conference.  The winner of that game clinches the 7-seed in their respective conference.  The loser of that game then plays the winner of the 9 vs. 10 matchup.

The 9-seed plays the 10-seed in each conference.  The winner of that game then plays the loser of the 7 vs. matchup.  The loser of the 9 vs 10 matchup is eliminated.  They can go fishing, head to Cancun, or do whatever they want with their lives.  They won’t be playing in the playoffs.

The loser of the 7 vs. 8 matchup plays the winner of the 9 vs. 10 game.  The winner of this game clinches the 8th and final seed in the NBA Playoffs.

The higher seed in each matchup gets home-court advantage.

Did you get all that?  Perhaps you are better as a visual learner.  Here’s how the matchups look.  

Now that the stage for the NBA 2023 Play-In Tournament is set let’s take a deeper look at the participating teams and how they can make it out of the Play-In.  Let’s look at the Western Conference first:

The Los Angeles Lakers make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they continue playing like they did to close the regular season.  Rob Pelinka actually made good trades that injected life into this Lakers squad.  They got younger with additions including D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt.  They also got deeper and better defensively.  The emergence of second-year guard Austin Reaves (a.k.a. “Hillbilly Kobe”) is not being talked about.  Throw in “healthy-enough” LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the Lakers have it all coming together at the right time.

The Minnesota Timberwolves make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they can overcome their recent in-fighting and timely injuries to key role players.  They just welcomed the return of Karl-Anthony Towns then lost key backup big man Naz Reid to a season-ending wrist injury.   Rudy Gobert taking a swing at Kyle Anderson and earning him a suspension for the game against the Lakers didn’t help matters.  Even worse, forward Jaden McDaniels fought a wall and lost.  He fractured his hand and is out for the Play-In tournament.  Jaylen Nowell’s (knee) status for the Play-In is still unknown.  The Timberwolves will likely miss three key bench players and their starting center.  That’s not usually a recipe for success. 

The New Orleans Pelicans make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum turn in huge performance.  In other news, water is wet.  Even more importantly, the Pelicans need to accept that Zion Williamson will not play during the Play-In Tournament due to injury.  New Orleans survived that distraction last year.  They also need big contributions from young, but emerging role players.  Trey Murphy III had a semi-breakout year.  Naji Marshall had a career-year.  Herbert Jones continues to improve.  Those three will need to play well in addition to having Jonas Valanciunas winning his matchups with Anthony Davis, KAT, and perhaps Rudy Gobert.  Good luck, Jonas.

The Oklahoma City Thunder make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they don’t realize that they’re not supposed to be in the Play-In Tournament.  Seriously, who had the Thunder in the Play-In let alone the playoffs this year?  Losing Chet Holmgren to injury before the season started was supposed to be a huge blow to Oklahoma City.  Instead, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as a top-10 MVP candidate (READ THAT AGAIN!).  Second-year Aussie guard Josh Giddey took another step forward as an all-around threat.  Head Coach Mark Daigneault goes 10 to 11 guys deep in his rotation.  He should get a ton of second and third place votes for NBA Coach of the Year.  His Thunder have surprised all season long.  Can that continue in the Play-In?

The Blog Dude’s Predictions for the West Play-In:

The Lakers defeat the Timberwolves clinching the 7-seed and will play the Memphis Grizzlies

The Pelicans defeat the Thunder in the 9/10 game.

The Timberwolves defeat the Pelicans in OT to clinch the 8-seed and a date with the Denver Nuggets.

The Eastern Conference Play-In participants mainly consists of teams who have disappointed this season.  Last season the Miami Heat were one Jimmy Butler three pointer away from playing in the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.  They basically brought everyone back and are in the Play-In.  The Atlanta Hawks acquired All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to join Trae Young in their backcourt.  Their underachieving cost former Head Coach Nate McMillan his job.  The Raptors and Bulls are actually where the so-called experts expected them to be.  If you ask both organizations, especially the Bulls, they’ve both underachieved.

All four teams played below expectations and now are left fighting for the last two playoff spots.  Here are their keys to making it out of the Play-In…

The Miami Heat make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they defend the perimeter and make outside shots.  How many times did Tyler Herro, Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent hit a huge, backbreaking three during last year’s playoffs?  For whatever reason the Heat’s three-point shots haven’t fallen as much as expected this season.  Long misses lead to transition opportunities.  They were 27th in the NBA in three-point shooting this year.  That didn’t stop them from firing them.  Look for Jimmy Butler to make it a point to get to the free-throw line early and often.  Adebayo also needs to assert himself on the offensive end for the Heat to advance.  There were many games during last season’s playoffs where he disappeared offensively.  Bam Adebayo averaged a career-high 20.4 points per game this season.  He will need a big game for the Heat to advance.

The Atlanta Hawks make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they push the pace offensively, spread out opposing defenses, and give a decent effort on the defensive end.  The Hawks were 3rd in the NBA in points per game this season.  Atlanta also took care of the basketball ranking 4th in the least turnover per game.  The problem with the Hawks often either let opposing teams stay in games or were left having to come back from big deficits due to slow starts.  One difference is that the Hawks are deeper this year.  The Heat laid out the blueprint on how to slow down Trae Young in last year’s Playoffs.  They may need to adjust with needing to cover Dejounte Murray in the same backcourt.  Saddiq Bey was an underrated pickup at the trade deadline and rookie AJ Griffin emerged as a solid role player.  New coach Quin Snyder isn’t known for winning big playoff games though.  Here’s his chance to change that narrative.

The Toronto Raptors make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they can take advantage of two-to-three more opportunities on the offensive end.  The Raptors are a sneaky-good defensive team, even in today’s NBA.  They led the NBA in steals per game and gave up the least second chance points in the league.  Toronto also takes care of the basketball.  They had the least turnovers and assist/turnover ration in the league this season.   So how did this team finish 41-41 and 9th in the East?  They didn’t shoot as well.  The Raptors were 27th in overall shooting percentage and 28th in 3-Point shooting.  Their defense created opportunities on offense.  At the end of the day, the Raptors didn’t shoot well enough.  Now’s their chance to improve on that.

The Chicago Bulls make the 2023 NBA Playoffs if they remember that an NBA basketball is 48 minutes.  No NBA team blew more double digit leads this season than the Chicago Bulls.  At least it seemed as if that were the case.  The Bulls have been fine offensively and have been a better three-point shooting team than most give them credit for.  Zach LaVine turned it around in the season’s second half and played like a guy with a max contract.  Young role players Patrick Williams, Coby White, and Ayo Dosunmu also played better down the stretch.  The Bulls’ second half sparkplug was none other than Patrick Beverley.  Chicago went 14-9 after acquiring Pat Bev.  He’s been a positive influence on the defensive end and in the locker room.  If Pat Bev is going to celebrate a Play-In he will have to do it on the road – and behind big games from LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, AND center Nikola Vucevic.

The Blog Dude’s Predictions for the East Play-In:

The Heat beat the Hawks clinching the 7-seed and will play the Boston Celtics

The Bulls beat the Raptors in the 9/10 matchup.

The Hawks defeat the Bulls on a last second score in double OT due to a Bulls defensive breakdown to clinch the 8-seed.  I bust a toe kicking my couch, spike a stress ball into the floor, damage at least one TV, and yell expletives in different (over/under 3.5) languages in frustration.

Ok, maybe I exaggerated a bit on my prediction following the Bulls loss.  I’m actually pretty mild-mannered when it comes to my Bulls.  Ask my wife… 

I would never break my TV!



Photo Credit: Wikipedia and Depositphotos

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