Everyone’s favorite time of the year is finally here. We’re just days away from the NBA’s Play-in Tournament as eight teams battle for the right to get their spines pulled from them in the first round. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the Play-in when it was first introduced. I thought it watered down the postseason, essentially letting everybody and their mamas into the playoffs.
But I will admit it adds extra intrigue to the last few weeks of the regular season. Especially since we’ve had teams expected to be at the top of their conference forced to play their way into the first round.
Instituted last season the Play-in Tournament expands the playoffs to 10 teams in each conference. The first six seeds skip the Play-in and move directly to the first round. The seven and eight seeds face off with the winner becoming the seven seed. The nine and ten seeds meet with the winner playing the loser of that seven-eight matchup. The winner of that final game takes the eighth and final spot in the traditional playoffs.
Last year LeBron James and the Lakers battled Steph Curry and the Warriors in the Western Conference Play-in for the No. 7 seed. In the closing seconds, the Lakers won that game with a deep three from James. Golden State moved on to face a hungry Memphis squad for the No. 8 seed losing that game as well.
This year, the other Los Angeles team will have to make their way through the Play-in Tournament out West if they hope to make another run similar to last postseason. The Clippers made it to their first-ever Western Conference Finals and pushed the Phoenix Suns to six games in that series. Even with the recent return of Paul George and Norman Powell, the road to glory will be much more challenging this time.
The Clippers’ other star, Kawhi Leonard, hasn’t touched the court all season, and it’s doubtful he’ll return in the postseason. L.A. had Leonard’s services for about half of last year’s run, but now they must do it without him. I think the Clippers have a great chance to make it out of the Play-in and win their first-round series.
Out West, Play-in Tournament positioning isn’t in as much flux as in the Eastern Conference. The Timberwolves and Clippers are locked into the No. 7 & 8 seeds. The same goes for the Pelicans and Spurs, although their last couple of regular-season games will determine who goes into the Play-in at Nos. 9 & 10.
I see the Clippers going to Minnesota and beating the T-Wolves for the seven seed. But the Wolves will still make the playoffs by beating the winner of Pelicans-Spurs to capture the eight seed. That outcome matches up the Clippers with an exciting young Memphis Grizzlies team. And that means the Minny would get the 60-win Suns.
Believe it or not, if it happens like that, I’ll take the Clippers over the Grizzlies in seven games. Yes, I know the Grizzlies beat them each time they played during the regular season. But Paul George missed a couple of those games, Kawhi wasn’t there for any of them, obviously, and Powell only played one of the four meetings. The Clippers are just about back to full strength except for Leonard’s absence (did you hear he was spotted at practice the other day). Call me crazy, but I still think L.A. will have enough to beat the Grizzlies without Leonard.
For Minnesota, should they be unlucky enough to get the eight seed, it was a great season by their usual standards. They’ll be lucky to win one game against the Suns. Phoenix in four games over Minnesota if it comes to this. Karl-Anthony Towns is playing like a beast this year, but that won’t be enough for these baby wolves to handle the Suns.
It’s the second round where things could get tricky for the Clippers. If the Clippers escape the first round as the seven seed, they’d have to face the three seed-six seed winner. The Warriors hold a half-game lead over the Mavericks for third place in the West. Against a healthy Warriors team, I can see the Clippers stealing a game, possibly two. But Curry’s been out recently with a foot injury, so we don’t know where he’ll be physically.
With Curry on the floor, I’ll take them over a Kawhi-less Clippers squad. But I doubt Curry will be back at 100 percent that soon, so I feel this could still be a six- or seven-game series. Ultimately, the Warriors will be favored to win this series. But if Curry misses a game or two, then the Warriors are in trouble.
Dallas could also end up in the No. 3 slot in the West if things go their way over the next few days. If that happens, and they and the Clippers make it out of the first round, we’d get a Mavs-Clippers series for the third consecutive postseason. The Clippers have taken the previous two, but this year could be quite different. Luka Dončić has had his way with the Clippers in the playoffs. But now, these Mavs have prioritized defense. I think the third time might be the charm against the Clippers, should the bracket unfold this way. Dončić and the Mavs competing in the Western Conference finals doesn’t sound all that crazy.
There are so many scenarios the Play-in adds to the postseason. We get first-round matchups we didn’t expect to see coming into the season, and this year, as expressed, I think a Play-in team gets into the second round. The Clippers won’t be your normal seven seed. If Paul George doesn’t get injured in December, they’d probably be fighting with Dallas and Golden State for third or fourth place in the West. As much as I want to discount the Play-in Tournament, it’s getting hard to do so when it adds such drama to the end of the regular season.