The NBA play-in tournament is an exciting new format that was first introduced in the 2019-20 season. With the play-in, teams that finish 7th-10th in each conference battle after the regular season for the final two playoff spots per conference. This guide will explain everything you need to know about the NBA play-in tournament. We’ll cover the background, format, rules, impact on the playoffs, key strategies, notable results, and more. Whether you’re an avid NBA fan or casual viewer, this comprehensive look at the play-in tournament will help you understand how this new element shapes the league.

Background on the NBA Play-In Tournament

Here is some essential context on the play-in tournament:

  • The play-in was approved in 2018 by the NBA Board of Governors to start in the 2020 playoffs.
  • It was introduced to incentivize teams to continue competing late into the regular season.
  • The goal was making the playoff races more exciting for fans with more teams in contention.
  • The 7th and 8th seeds host the 9th and 10th place teams in their conference.
  • The winner of the 7th-8th matchup gets the #7 playoff seed.
  • The loser plays the winner of the 9th-10th matchup for the #8 seed.
  • The loser of that final game is eliminated from playoff contention.

This format provided new opportunities for bubble teams to reach the playoffs through the play-in.

NBA Play-In Tournament Format and Rules

Here is how the NBA play-in tournament format works:

  • At the end of the regular season, seeds 7-10 in each conference qualify for the play-in.
  • The teams with the 7th and 8th best records host the play-in games.
  • The 9th and 10th seeds have to play road play-in games.
  • In the Western and Eastern Conference, 7 hosts 8 and 9 hosts 10.
  • The winner of the 7-8 game earns the #7 playoff seed automatically.
  • The loser of 7-8 hosts the winner of the 9-10 game for the #8 seed.
  • The loser of that final playoff spot game is eliminated.
  • All play-in games are standard playoffs rules and only one game per matchup.

The play-in neatly folds into the overall playoff structure to determine the final two seeds.

Impact of the Play-In Tournament on the NBA Playoffs

The play-in has wider implications on the NBA playoffs:

  • More teams remain in contention late into the regular season.
  • The 7th and 8th seeds are devalued slightly by having to win an extra game.
  • Mediocre teams now have a path to make unexpected playoff runs.
  • Star players on bubble teams are incentivized to keep competing.
  • Fans are more invested in late regular season games with more at stake.
  • Early playoff matchups can be changed by the play-in results.

The play-in rejuvenates interest right before the playoffs begin. But some feel it diminishes the regular season importance of being a top 6 seed. Overall, the play-in aims to increase excitement.

Key Strategies and Factors in Winning Play-In Games

Teams in the play-in portion of the standings should focus on these strategic factors:

  • Rest stars judiciously late in the season to avoid injuries but maintain form.
  • Choose between prioritizing getting the 7th seed or falling to the 10th seed based on matchups.
  • Lean on depth so stars don’t have to carry too heavy a load.
  • Exploit playing at home in the 7th-8th seed games.
  • Get hot at the right time and enter the playoffs with momentum.
  • Ride a go-to star who can single-handedly control play-in games.

Navigating injuries, leadership, and peaking at the right time is crucial during this new late season element.

Notable Play-In Tournament Game Results

In the short history of the play-in, some notable results have occurred:

  • In 2021, the Lakers and Warriors battled in a huge 7-8 matchup with LeBron vs. Steph. The Lakers won but were worn down entering the actual playoffs.
  • Ja Morant lifting the 9th seeded Grizzlies over the 8th seeded Warriors to steal the final 2021 playoff spot displayed the play-in’s unpredictability.
  • The 12th seeded Hornets demolished the 13th seeded Pacers in the first ever 9-10 play-in game back in 2020.
  • Anthony Davis dominated and carried the Lakers to a blowout win over the Warriors in the 7-8 game in 2020.

The play-in has already created memorable performances and interesting results in its short existence so far.

Examples of How the Play-In Can Impact the Playoffs

The play-in shapes the playoffs in a few key ways:

  • The Lakers had to work harder in 2020 after falling to the 7th seed, possibly tiring them out for the real playoffs.
  • The Warriors looking lackluster in the 2021 play-in foreshadowed their poor full playoff performance.
  • Young rising teams like the Grizzlies gain invaluable experience that helps them in the playoffs going forward after stealing a spot through the play-in.
  • Stars on bubble teams near the play-in cutoff have more incentive to keep competing and can carry their teams to unlikely runs.
  • Lower playoff seeds face better rested competition earlier after the play-in added games.

The play-in tournament creates a playoff pre-show that gives fringe teams chances but may wear out others.

Pros and Cons of the NBA Play-In Tournament

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages of the play-in format:


  • Adds excitement as more teams vie for the playoffs late in the regular season.
  • Gives bubble teams incentive to keep battling for a playoff spot.
  • Provides opportunities for stars to shine and highlight reel moments.
  • Introduces unpredictability and Cinderella stories.


  • Possibly diminishes import of regular season since seeds 7 and 8 are no longer safe.
  • Can tire out play-in winners right before the playoffs.
  • Potential for injuries with additional must-win games.
  • Makes path easier for mediocre teams to steal playoff spots.

There are intriguing pros and cons, but the play-in aims to increase fan interest leading into the playoffs.

Future Outlook for the NBA Play-In Tournament

The play-in tournament appears likely to remain part of the NBA structure for the foreseeable future given early positive results. Here is the potential future outlook:

  • The league seems happy with the added attention and viewership.
  • Fans enjoy the increased late-season drama and unpredictability.
  • It will likely become a staple part of the NBA calendar and affect regular season approaches.
  • The league could expand it to include more teams, but 7-10 seeds works well.
  • Players and coaches may dislike some aspects but it achieves the NBA’s goals.

Barring any major unforeseen issues, the play-in tournament has found its place as a stepping stone into the NBA playoffs.

FAQ About the NBA Play-In Tournament

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the play-in:

How are home court advantage and seeding determined in the play-in tournament?

The teams with the 7th and 8th best regular season records get home court advantage and host the first play-in games against the 9th and 10th seeds.

What happens if a team gets injured during the play-in tournament?

Standard playoff injury rules apply in the play-in games. Teams can sign emergency replacement players if needed.

Can the championship come from a team that made the playoffs via the play-in?

Yes, any playoff team including those entering through the play-in has a mathematical chance to win the NBA Finals. But it is obviously tougher entering as a low seed.

How many total play-in games could a single team play?

The maximum number is two. For example, if the 8th seed loses the 7-8 game, they would then host the 9-10 winner for the final playoff spot in a second play-in game.

Why did the NBA add the play-in tournament?

The play-in was added to incentivize teams to keep competing late into the regular season by expanding the playoff race to more teams. This created more fan interest near the end of the season.

I hope this guide helped explain everything you need to know about the exciting NBA play-in tournament! Let me know if you have any other play-in questions.


Categories: Basketball


  • Tom Eddy

    Tom Eddy is the founder and CEO of Poll Position, a leading sports news and opinion website. Eddy founded Poll Position driven by a vision of creating an innovative digital media brand focused exclusively on sports journalism. Under Eddy's leadership, Poll Position has grown from a solo blog into one of the most visited online destinations for sports coverage. Eddy Tom


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