The Inaugural Play-In Tournament
By: Devin Zanskas
In response to the pandemic, the NBA’s execution of the Orlando Bubble is an accomplishment to be proud of. Under those terrible circumstances, the association was forced to be creative. By not only making up for the roughly 15 regular season games lost, the NBA was also able to provide an appropriate lead-up to the 2020 playoffs. Of course, jumping straight into the most intense competitions of the year after such an extended lay-off would’ve been incredibly ignorant of the players’ health. However, this warm-up to the postseason led to an even longer delay to the conclusion of the 2019-2020 campaign. This meant that the Lakers’ last NBA Finals victory took place on October 11th, which only afforded them and the Heat a two-month break until training camp for the ’20-’21 season. That provides an even more pronounced disadvantage for the reigning champions to repeat, but the league wants to return to a normal schedule. With the season starting two months late, the association assessed that a 72-game regular season would be the proper way for the schedule to return to normalcy. The loss of ten regular season games also opened up the opportunity for the NBA to experiment with the long-awaited play-in tournament.
The original matchups for the play-in tournament included the seventh and eighth seeds battling to face the second instead of the first seed in the playoffs, and the ninth and the tenth seeds fighting to stay alive to play the loser between seventh and eighth seeds. In the eastern conference, it looked like the two lower seeds had more momentum than the higher seeds. The seventh seeded Celtics lost Jaylen Brown for the remainder of the season to a torn scapholunate ligament in his left wrist, according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. The ninth seeded Pacers have been without Turner since April 18th, and have been challenged with some negative press regarding head coach Nate Bjorkgren, in addition to the tension between assistant coach Greg Foster and Goga Bitadze. Despite the build-up, Jayson Tatum hung 50 points on his fellow St. Louis native, Bradley Beal, and the eight Pacers put up double figures in point on the Hornets for a 144-point night. In the West, the favorites in the Lakers and the Grizzlies took care of business. LeBron sunk the Warriors with a deep three over Steph. Meanwhile, Demar Derozan and Rudy Gay gave the Grizzlies a scare with some clutch shots late, but Memphis stayed strong.
The final matchups of the play-in tournament seemed a lot more predictable than the initial contests, however as the NBA would have it, anything can happen in one game. As mentioned, the Wizards had all of the momentum a team could ask for heading into their last play-in game. Although Beal missed three of his last four games with a left hamstring strain according to espn.com, the game before his absence he scored 50 points himself against the Pacers. Westbrook came into the playoffs as hot as anyone, earning eastern conference player of the month honors on 26.3 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 16.1 assists per game for the month of May, and passing Oscar Robertson for the most triple doubles in NBA history. So far, the only downside to the play-in tournament is that we will miss out on Steph in the playoffs for the second year in a row, even though he led the league in scoring and finished top three in MVP voting. Perhaps Morant will be able to build upon his 35-point performance and challenge the Jazz without Mitchell instead.