Even in normal times, the path to NBA glory can feel like a slog - but it’s been a real war of attrition this season.
Just 71 days separated LeBron James’ LA Lakers claiming the championship in a Covid-forced bubble environment at Disney World in Orlando and the 2020-21 season tipping off last December 22nd.
What followed was a shortened 72-game regular season in a congested five-month period. Injuries, Covid layoffs, as well as the virus’ lingering long-term effects, plus the empty arenas all meant that it has often felt like a chore just to get to the postseason. And yet as of Sunday morning, the last day of the NBA regular season, only three of 20 playoff spots had been set - the league kept interest and intrigue right to the end, due partly to the 10 fewer matches but also the addition of a play-in tournament.
First introduced in the bubble, the play-in has been refined and expanded this time around: The teams who finished seventh and eighth in their respective conference play for the seventh seed, while nine and ten face off to avoid elimination. The loser of the former plays the winner of the latter for the eighth seed. Critics say it has devalued the season itself; backers say it eliminated tanking and made the late-season games go down to the wire.
The play-in begins Tuesday night and gives NBA fans the novelty of one-off games - no best-of-seven, let-the-best-man-win clashes here, it’s win or bust. Here's the match-ups over the next few days, all of which will be screened live on Sky Sports.
Injuries have devastated each of these teams. The storied Celtics have struggled for consistency this season, with their star player Jayson Tatum, who’s still only 23, telling Adrian Wojnarowski on his podcast over the weekend: “I don't necessarily feel or breathe the same that I did before I had Covid.” All Star wing Jaylen Brown is out for the season as he has surgery on a torn ligament in his left wrist.
The Wizards had a 13-day layoff at the start of February as Covid hit half the roster. The Pacers had five players missing for their final game, while the Hornets’ big trade in the offseason, Gordon Hayward, has been out due to a foot injury since the start of April, while LaMelo Ball, the likely rookie of the year, missed a month due to a wrist injury.
The Celtics seem to have lost all hope and momentum in recent weeks - even if they go through to the Playoffs, they could be embarrassed by the Philadelphia 76ers or Brooklyn Nets. The sooner they reach the off-season, the better.
The Wizards, who have a backcourt comprising the never-say-die spirit and tenacity of Russell Westbrook and the sharpshooting Bradley Beal, look like they could beat anyone in a one-off. Indeed, Westbrook should be in the MVP conversation - he’s hit 38 triple-doubles (points, assists, rebounds) this season, during which he surpassed Oscar Robertson’s 47-year record of 181 career triple-doubles.
When Westbrook is on the court, the Wizards have a chance.
Western Conference play-in: LA Lakers (7) v Golden State Warriors (8), Memphis Grizzlies (9) v San Antonio Spurs (10).
Yes, that’s LeBron and Anthony Davis’ storied Lakers franchise up against Steph Curry’s dynastic Warriors. The elimination of both teams is a possibility and the NBA’s worst nightmare, but more than likely they should both prevail to the playoffs. James has only played 45 games this season, and yet he’s still expected to make one of the All NBA teams (sportswriter/broadcasters’ team of the year) - that’s mainly due to his MVP-level play in the first half of the season. Davis has only played 36 due to leg injuries. The Lakers slid towards the play-in in their absence.
James has been vocal on the play-in too. Last year, on its introduction: “You got Portland. You got Memphis...New Orleans and Sacramento tinkering around there… so if there’s five or ten games left...why not those guys battle it out? Make them play each other all five games?”
This year, as it started to loom in the Lakers’ periphery: “Whoever came up with that shit needs to be fired.” Over the weekend, he was more zen: “Let the chips fall where they may... We’re ready to go." James and Davis both lined out on Saturday - and they looked as scary a prospect as ever.
Oh yeah. He’s back. pic.twitter.com/7QL0bE0nO5— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) May 15, 2021
Curry, meanwhile, lost his Splash Brother Klay Thompson days before the season began due to Achilles tendon injury. Curry has been one of the stars of the season, averaging 32.0 points a game to take the scoring title over the Wizards’ Beal - he’s scored 337 3-pointers this season, per ESPN, and is shooting them at a 42.1% clip. James on Sunday night declared: “We’re playing, in my mind, the MVP of this year in Steph.”
It’s a matchup that will have fans salivating - and Irish fans contemplating the best way to navigate a 3 am start time.
Grizzlies-Spurs is less starry, the latter slumping to a 15-25 record since the All-Star break in mid-February. Memphis has last year’s No2 draft pick Ja Morant, who is putting together a very social media-friendly highlights reel.
These replays of the Morant dunk are outrageous... pic.twitter.com/W15lTWJBh5— Chris Vernon (@ChrisVernonShow) April 13, 2021
With all of these play-in games having the air of a cup final, the atmosphere should be electric, even if the arenas are less than half full. And this is just to get in to the playoffs - that’s when the fun really begins.
Philadelphia 76ers (1) v winner of 8th seed; Brooklyn Nets (2) v Winner of 7th seed; Milwaukee Bucks (3) v Miami Heat (6); New York Knicks (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5).
: Utah Jazz (1) v winner of 8th seed; Phoenix Suns (2) v Winner of 7th seed; Denver Nuggets (3) v Portland Trailblazers (6); LA Clippers (4) v Dallas Mavericks (5).