Bring on the play-in, with the NBA’s regular season complete and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers still not officially in the playoffs.
The NBA’s new play-in tournament begins Tuesday night, and it took until the 146th and final day of this compressed season to determine who is going where for the postseason.
The Eastern Conference matchups are set: The No. 7 Boston Celtics will host the No. 8 Washington Wizards, and the No. 9 Indiana Pacers host the No. 10 Charlotte Hornets in the NBA’s first elimination game this season. Both of those games are Tuesday.
And in the Western Conference, the No. 7 Lakers and LeBron James host the No. 8 Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry, while the No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies play host to the No. 10 San Antonio Spurs. Those two matchups are Wednesday.
“We’ve given ourselves a chance to play games that matter,” Curry said after the Warriors beat the Grizzlies to clinch the eighth position for the play-in.
James has been a critic of the play-in round, saying recently that the person who came up with the idea “should be fired.”
And now, the play-in awaits him.
The Celtics-Wizards winner goes straight into the playoffs as the East’s No. 7 seed and will play the No. 2 Brooklyn Nets; the loser of that game will host the Pacers-Hornets winner Thursday to determine the East’s No. 8 seed and who will face the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1.
Same deal out West: The Lakers-Warriors winner is the No. 7 seed and will play the No. 2 Phoenix Suns; the loser will play host to the Grizzlies-Spurs winner for the right to play the top-seeded Utah Jazz, who will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The West first-round matchups that are set have the third-seeded Denver Nuggets against the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, and the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers meeting the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in a rematch of an opening series from last season.
Getting to the No. 8 spot for the play-in round is a massive comeback story for the Wizards, who started the season 0-5 and 3-12, were shut down for two weeks in January for coronavirus-related issues, had to play 38 games in the final 67 days to make up for all of that lost time and were 17-32 early last month.
They’re 17-6 since, rallying from 16 points down to beat the Hornets on Sunday with Russell Westbrook — the league’s all-time triple-double king — getting his 38th of the season.
“Obviously, Washington’s rolling,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They’re a heck of a basketball team. ... They’re a handful. Tuesday night’s going to be one heck of a challenge.”
Meanwhile, the New York Knicks — who missed the last seven postseasons — not only are back in the playoffs, but also will open them at home. Their win over the Celtics locked up the East’s No. 4 seed and a first-round matchup against the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks.
That means the reigning East champion Miami Heat will be the No. 6 seed and will open the playoffs at the No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks in a rematch of last year’s East semifinals. That was sealed when the Nets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night, giving them the No. 2 seed in the East and a matchup with the Celtics-Wizards winner in Round 1.
One other matter of importance was decided Sunday — the scoring title.
Bradley Beal scored 25 points for the Wizards and ended the season averaging 31.3. That meant Curry needed only three points against the Grizzlies to ensure he finished ahead of Beal.
He scored 46, pushing his final average to a career-best 32.0. It is Curry’s second scoring title, and he becomes just the second player 33 or older to win one. The other is Michael Jordan.