2021 NBA Play-In Preview: A More Entertaining Road to the Playoffs

By Saransh Sharma, Anish Dhondi, & Nikhil Pradeep

The NBA Play-In Tournament has been hated and praised countless times throughout this season. Many like it because fewer teams will be tanking during the season, giving more teams a chance to make the Playoffs, and it gives us some incredible matchups (LeBron vs. Curry being the perfect example). At the same time, while it is not as big of an issue this season, future seasons could have 9 and 10-seeded teams that are significantly worse than 7 and 8-seeded teams, yet they could make it to the Playoffs through the Play-In. No matter whether you like it or hate it, there is more meaningful basketball before the Playoffs than ever, and here is our preview and our predictions for who gets the 7-seed and 8-seed in the East and West.

Play-In Format:

To Clinch 7-Seed: Team Must Win 7-Seed vs. 8-Seed Game

To Clinch 8-Seed: The Winner of 9-Seed vs. 10-Seed Game Plays the Loser of 7 vs. 8 Game, With Winner Clinching 8-Seed. The Loser of 9 vs. 10 Game Is Eliminated, Along With Loser of The 8-Seed Play-In Game

Saransh’s Predictions:

Western Conference:

  • #7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #8 Golden State Warriors: Lakers win to clinch 7-seed, play Phoenix
  • #9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #10 San Antonio Spurs: Spurs win to play against Warriors in 8-seed game
  • #8 Golden State Warriors vs. #10 San Antonio Spurs: Warriors win to clinch 8-seed, play Utah

The LeBron vs. Curry show will be the spectacle of the night and will be entertaining as always, but the talent gap between the Lakers and Warriors is too much, leading to an easy Lakers win. San Antonio gets matched up against an up-and-coming Memphis squad, but the slow pace and calm of Gregg Popovich and the experienced Spurs will be too much. That experience and slow pace will not work against Curry & the Warriors, though, whose fast-paced offense will run San Antonio out of the building and straight to their couches to watch the Playoffs. 

Eastern Conference:

  • #7 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Washington Wizards: Wizards win to clinch 7-seed, play Brooklyn
  • #9 Charlotte Hornets vs. #10 Indiana Pacers: Hornets win to play against Celtics in 8-seed game
  • #7 Boston Celtics vs. #9 Charlotte Hornets: Hornets win to clinch 8-seed, play Philadelphia

On April 5th, the Wizards were the 13th seed in Eastern Conference with a 17-32 record, looking like a team that was yet again fighting to get a higher lottery pick. They ended the season 34-38, good for 8th in the Eastern Conference, thanks to an incredible improvement from this team and historic performances from Russell Westbrook. The improvement of this team and the triple-doubles from Russ will keep coming, and the Celtics will not stand a chance. The Hornets take on a depleted Pacers squad and get past them to set up a matchup with another depleted squad in the Celtics, and again, the lack of health from Boston and the rise of the Hornets will get them the 8-seed.

Anish’s Predictions:

Western Conference:

  • #7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #8 Golden State Warriors: Lakers win to clinch 7-seed, play Phoenix
  • #9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #10 San Antonio Spurs: Grizzlies win to play against Warriors in 8-seed game
  • #8 Golden State Warriors vs. #9 Memphis Grizzlies: Warriors win to clinch 8-seed, play Utah

Lakers vs. Warriors play is the game we’re all waiting for. The matchup of LeBron vs. Steph has been a rivalry for a large part of the 2010s decade and now carries over into the 2020s. The Lakers have the upper hand talent-wise and are healthy at the moment. Despite Curry most likely dropping 40+, the Lakers should pull this one out. The Grizzlies vs. Spurs game is a lot less anticipated, but the Grizzlies should win this. The Spurs have been through far more playoff experience however, they’re in a rough patch going 2-8 in their last 10 games. The Grizzlies young core of Morant and Jackson can have the energy to put this game away. In the 8-Seed Game, we will see the Warriors vs Grizzlies, a rematch of the final game of the season. In this game, the Warriors came on top with Curry dropping a ridiculous 46 points, and although Curry is capable of doing that again, the game will be a lot closer than people think. In the end, I see Curry closing out the game and the Grizzlies losing as they lack the star power to finish off games like this in the playoffs.

Eastern Conference:

  • #7 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Washington Wizards: Wizards win to clinch 7-seed, play Brooklyn
  • #9 Charlotte Hornets vs. #10 Indiana Pacers: Pacers win to play against Celtics in 8-seed game
  • #7 Boston Celtics vs. #10 Indiana Pacers: Hornets win to clinch 8-seed, play Philadelphia

The Wizards are one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now, and the Celtics seem to be the exact opposite. A spectacular month it’s been for Russell Westbrook as Beal has been on and off with injuries. The Wizards will go into this game with a ton of momentum, and that should carry over into this game, resulting in a Wizards Nets first-round series. The Celtics are just in a rough patch especially losing Jaylen Brown which will hurt their chances to go far in this postseason. The Hornets vs. Pacers game face-off led by rookie LaMelo Ball and the Pacers led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers always seem to be one of those teams that are always slept on, and with Caris LeVert finding his stride, this team can be a real surprise. I have the Pacers winning this game easily, as the Hornets just don’t have the experience or talent to defeat the Pacers in my opinion. Now the 8-Seed Game between the Celtics and the Pacers will be close, and Malcolm Brogdon coming back will be crucial to the Pacers’ success. I have the Pacers winning this game, as they seem to have more well-rounded talent that tops the Celtics.

Nikhil’s Predictions:

Western Conference:

  • #7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #8 Golden State Warriors: Lakers win to clinch 7-seed, play Phoenix
  • #9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #10 San Antonio Spurs: Spurs win to play against Warriors in 8-seed game
  • #8 Golden State Warriors vs. #10 San Antonio Spurs: Warriors win to clinch 8-seed, play Utah

As much as Steph Curry has lit up the scoring column this season, there simply is not enough depth on the Golden State roster to compete with LeBron, AD, and the rest of the Lakers team. There are a select few teams that Curry’s 32 PPG average during the regular season will not work on, and both Los Angeles teams fall into this category. In a full series, the Warriors could potentially take a couple of games, but this is the new Play-In tournament and its one-game format hurts Golden State’s chances. That being said, I see them beating the Spurs later on in the tournament to get the 8-seed. The Spurs themselves have been the classic uninspiring but somehow steady performers that we know and love, and I see them beating the relatively new and upcoming Grizzlies as well. Thus, I have the Lakers at the 7-seed and Warriors at 8-seed.

Eastern Conference:

  • #7 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Washington Wizards: Wizards win to clinch 7-seed, play Brooklyn
  • #9 Charlotte Hornets vs. #10 Indiana Pacers: Hornets win to play against Celtics in 8-seed game
  • #7 Boston Celtics vs. #9 Charlotte Hornets: Celtics win to clinch 8-seed, play Philadelphia

The Wizards have been one of the hottest teams in the league ever since Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal figured out how to coexist. Starting the season 0-5, being 17-32 in April, and finishing off the rest of the season 17-6 has been one of the best turnarounds this league has seen in a while, and that momentum is enough for me to have them over the sliding Celtics for the 7-seed. The Celtics themselves have been on the decline since Jaylen Brown’s season-ending injury, losing 5 of their last games before the end of the season. That being said, I still see them beating the Hornets for the 8-seed. The Hornets and Pacers are two teams that are on the cusp of becoming household names in the Eastern Conference, yet both are trending in different directions. The Pacers are internally combusting, with players not working with the coaching staff, and coaching staff having a hard time controlling the roster to their liking. Couple that with the rather uninspiring team, it is honestly a surprise that they’ve gotten this far. The Hornets, on the other hand, are building for the future and have a nice squad, and probably would have been higher up in the standings had Gordon Hayward not gone out with injury. The Celtics, however, are still very much the better team and way more put together, enough to propel them over the Hornets for the 8-seed.

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