NBA play-in tournament, explained: What to know about format ahead of 2021 playoffs

NBA play-in tournament, explained: What to know about format ahead of 2021 playoffs

LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Mark Cuban may have criticized it, but it’s hard to argue the NBA play-in tournament hasn’t served its intended purpose.

The addition of the tournament has brought a new level of intrigue and drama down the final stretch of the regular season and encouraged teams to compete rather than tank in the hopes of landing a better draft pick. While the play-in format is straightforward, it may be confusing to many NBA fans at first because it’s a new concept to the league. Don’t worry — we’re here to help.

NBA STANDINGS: Seeding scenarios, breakdown for playoff spots

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from the tournament, including a bracket and schedule for play-in games.

NBA play-in format, explained

  • The play-in tournament will be held after the conclusion of the 2020-21 regular season and before the start of the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The teams that finish Nos. 1-6 in the standings of each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots. Teams Nos. 7-10 will enter the play-in tournament.
  • Each conference’s Nos. 7 and 8 teams will face off, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The loser will still have one more opportunity to reach the playoffs.
  • Each conference’s Nos. 9 and 10 teams will face off, with the winner advancing to play the loser of the No. 7-vs.-No. 8 game. The loser of the No. 9-vs.-No. 10 game will be eliminated from playoff contention.
  • The loser of the No. 7-vs.-No. 8 game and the winner of the No. 9-vs.-No. 10 game will then play against each other. The winner of that game will be the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. The loser will be eliminated from playoff contention.
  • Beyond the play-in tournament, the 2021 NBA playoffs will follow the typical format, with full best-of-seven series all the way through the NBA Finals.

NBA playoff bracket 2021

(NBA)

NBA play-in tournament schedule

May 18

Game (play-in) Time (ET) National TV
East No. 10 vs. East No. 9 TBD TNT
East No. 8 vs. No. 7 Celtics TBD TNT

May 19

Game (play-in) Time (ET) National TV
No. 10 Spurs vs. West No. 9 TBD ESPN
West No. 8 vs. West No. 7 TBD ESPN

May 20

Game (play-in) Time (ET) National TV
Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 loser TBD TNT

May 21

Game (play-in) Time (ET) National TV
Game 3 winner vs.Game 4 loser TBD ESPN

When do the NBA playoffs start?

  • Play-in tournament: May 18-21
  • NBA playoffs: May 22

The 2021 NBA play-in tournament will begin on Tuesday, May 18. The first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs will start four days later on Saturday, May 22.

July 22 is the latest possible date for an NBA Finals game.



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