In 2021, the NBA debuted a new format to determine the final two seeds of each conference (East and West), matching up seeds 7 through 10 in a tournament style format.Embed from Getty Images
In each conference, the 7th best team plays against the 8th best team, and the winner of that game advances to play against the 2nd best team in that conference in the NBA Playoffs (7 game series). Meanwhile, the loser of that game plays the winner of a matchup between the 9th placed team and the 10th placed team. That second game is played for the rights to the 8th seed in each conference, meaning the winner of that game plays against the best team (top seed) in that conference.
With this being said, before the NBA Playoffs get underway later today, it’s worth recapping how the Play-In unfolded. These pivotal games were entertaining, wacky, and extremely competitive, proving that the league’s new format is a smashing success.
(7) Miami Heat vs (8) Atlanta HawksEmbed from Getty Images
The first Play-In matchup was between familiar foes, the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks, who squared off four times in the regular season. The Heat won three of those four games, but they couldn’t find the same success in the Play-In. The Hawks bench quartet of Saddiq Bey, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Onyeka Okongwu, and Jalen Johnson stepped up big in this one, combining for 53 of the Hawks 116 points. Meanwhile, Miami’s veteran guard Kyle Lowry led all scorers by pouring in 33 points off the bench, a season-high scoring mark for him. However, poor offensive performances from Miami’s stars (Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo) ultimately doomed them, as they failed to protect home court in a 116-105 loss.
The Hawks advance and claim the 7th seed in the East, meaning they’ll face the Boston Celtics in the 1st round of the NBA Playoffs.
(7) Los Angeles Lakers vs (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves were better than the Los Angeles Lakers in the Play-In Game. They shot better from the field, better from three, better from the free throw line, and racked up both more steals and more blocks than the Lakers. With 6:39 left on the 1st quarter game clock, the T-Wolves took the lead 11-10. From that point forward, they led the entire game up until there was 2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, when a LeBron James three-pointer tied the game, 95-95.
The reason for Minnesota’s late collapse? Their offense.
The T-Wolves scored just 12 points on 15 field goal attempts and committed 7 fouls. Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who was sensational all night, couldn’t rise to the occasion when the lights shone the brightest, bogged down by hesitancy on offense and foul trouble on defense. Additionally, the Wolves were without stalwart big man Rudy Gobert (suspended for fighting teammate Kyle Anderson during the team’s regular season finale) and All-NBA caliber defender Jaden McDaniels (fractured hand punching a wall in frustration during the team’s regular season finale).
The Lakers finally reclaimed their lead after a fantastic LeBron James drive-and-kick set up a wide open three for Dennis Schroeder.
There would be even more drama, as Minnesota were able to send the game to overtime after a boneheaded Anthony Davis foul on a Mike Conley three-pointer allowed the T-Wolves point guard to close the gap from the free throw line. The game entered overtime tied 98-98, but the Lakers finally capitalized on the Timberwolves’ offensive struggles, emerging 108-102 winners to secure the 7th seed in the West, setting up a first round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
(9) Toronto Raptors vs (10) Chicago Bulls
This game was won – and lost – at the charity stripe. While the Bulls shot a respectable 18/22 from the free throw line on the night, the Raptors shot an abysmal 18/36. Toronto wasted 18 points at the line, and lost by just 4 points, as the Bulls scraped by with a 109-105 win, earning them a game against the Miami Heat for the rights to face the top seed Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Meanwhile, the Raptors were eliminated from playoff contention, ending a disappointing season for Canada’s lone NBA team.
The reason for all of those missed free throws? The bloodcurdling screams of Diar DeRozan, the daughter of Bulls star swingman DeMar DeRozan. Diar was sitting courtside under Toronto’s basket, and absolutely everyone – those in Scotiabank Arena and those watching the broadcast of the game – could hear her when the Raptors went to the foul line. Viewer discretion is advised.
Here’s DeMar’s reaction to Diar’s clutch performance:
The viral story of Diar DeRozan perfectly exemplifies the awesome absurdity of professional sports.
(9) New Orleans Pelicans vs (10) Oklahoma City Thunder
In what was arguably the most entertaining matchup of the Play-In Tournament, the Pelicans and Thunder squared off with playoff elimination guaranteed for the loser. These are two of the youngest squads in the league, and the future is blindingly bright for both franchises, but nobody would’ve known it judging from this game. The Thunder’s backcourt duo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (24 years old) and Josh Giddey (20 years old) were sensational. SGA racked up 32 points, 3 steals, and 1 block, while Giddey added 31 points of his own to go along with 10 assists and 9 rebounds. Each of them committed just 2 turnovers despite the fact they both played over 40 minutes. For the Pelicans, Brandon Ingram (25 years old) led the way with an efficient 30 point, 6 rebound, 7 assist performance, keeping his team in the game in the fourth quarter with a myriad of tough clutch buckets.
The winning difference for the Thunder was Lu Dort. Dort, who is an undersized wing who went undrafted, scored 27 points on just 14 shots and played excellent defense all night. He bottled up the red-hot Ingram with the game on the line, and the Thunder emerged victorious on the night, winning 123-118 and thereby securing a battle with the Minnesota Timberwolves with the West’s 8th seed on the line.
(7) Miami Heat vs (10) Chicago Bulls
Chicago’s offense dried up at the worst possible time, and the Bulls were eliminated from playoff contention with a 102-91 loss to the Miami Heat. The Heat were led by Jimmy Butler and Max Strus, who each scored 31 points. Strus was an absolute flamethrower in this one, hitting 7 of his 12 three-point attempts (including the proverbial dagger) and finishing the game with a game-high +27 plus/minus.
The Bulls led 90-87 with 3:47 left in the 4th quarter after bench scoring specialist Coby White drained a long three from the left side of the floor, but head coach Billy Donovan inexplicably subbed White out of the game shortly thereafter. White finished the game with 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists to go along with a block and a steal in 31 minutes of play. Star guard Zach LaVine shot a putrid 6/21 from the field, finishing with 15 points and 5 turnovers in 41 minutes of action.
The Heat advance to the first round of the NBA Playoffs as the 8th seed in the East, where they’ll face off against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
(8) Minnesota Timberwolves vs (10) Oklahoma City Thunder
It was a great season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it came to an end yesterday night when they were thumped by the T-Wolves. Minnesota protected home court in a big way, silencing the negative noise surrounding their squad’s recent performances (particularly against the Lakers in the Play-In and against the Pelicans in their regular season finale).
Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 28 points on just 16 shots, pulling down 11 rebounds and blocking 3 shots for good measure. Rudy Gobert returned from his team-sanctioned suspension with a 21 point, 10 rebound performance. For the Thunder, rookie swingman Jalen Williams, or “JDub” for short (not to be confused with fellow Thunder rookie Jaylin Williams, who is a big man and goes by “JWill”) put up an efficient 17 points and dished out 5 assists. The Thunder shot just 36% from the field, while the Timberwolves shot 51.8% in comparison and cashed in 13 of their 32 threes (40.6%).
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