The Whiteboard: NBA play-in games wreak wonderful havoc on regular season’s end

Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

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All right, I changed my mind about the NBA play-in games.

The last time I wrote about this topic, I confessed I wasn’t much of a fan of the idea that 72 regular-season games could be rendered irrelevant by losing one or two play-in games, especially if the team in the 7- or 8-seed had a sizable lead over the teams in ninth and 10th place and then missed out on the postseason because of such a small sample size.

But after what we’ve seen over the last week or so in terms of almost every game having playoff implications on a nightly basis, I’m reserving my right to completely change course: The play-in games haven’t even arrived yet, but they’re absolutely wonderful for having such a delightful effect on the end of the regular season.

It should’ve been obvious that, with 10 teams in each conference jostling for position and still a few more trying to fight their way in or out of that play-in picture, it would have mathematically provided for more games with actual ramifications in the last week of the season. But what was initially viewed as a bad thing (how many teams are we going to allow to contend for a playoff spot when more than half the league already makes the postseason?) turned into a very important benefit: 16 teams still make the playoffs, but throwing an extra four in the hunt adds some desperation, drama and pure chaos to the mix.

Sure, there’s still some tanking going on. The Houston Rockets haven’t been competitive since the James Harden trade, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have somehow put them to shame over the last few months. Even likely playoff contenders have been strategic about who they’re playing (cough Los Angeles Lakers cough) to boost their odds of securing a more favorable first-round matchup.

But for the most part, these are outliers, and even a team like the Lakers opting for full health over immediate results adds a sense of excitement to a game like their recent, shorthanded showdown with the tanking Rockets — a contest that, in years past under the normal playoff format, would’ve been dull and meaningless. Instead, multiple fanbases were fully invested in the outcome, either rooting for the Lakers to hold on or cheering the Rockets to pull off the upset because of all the various ripple effects it would’ve had on their team’s playoff standing.

The defending champs won’t always be in that No. 7 slot to make the play-in scenario this dramatic, but a look at the Western Conference and Eastern Conference standings shows how far-ranging and widespread the effects of each night’s slate of games can be. Just look at the trickle-down effect out West:

The Phoenix Suns are still within striking distance of the Utah Jazz for the 1-seed, which would give them slightly better odds of avoiding the Lakers in the first round if LA gets the 7-seed. The Suns still need to go 2-0 against a San Antonio Spurs squad that’s already locked in at No. 10 to have any chance, but they also need the Jazz to lose one of their last two games against the Sacramento Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder — two teams that have already been eliminated from playoff contention. All of those games are suddenly worth monitoring now.

That’d be the case in any season where the 1- and 2-seeds are so close, but the LA Clippers are also within striking distance of the 2-seed. Because they own the tiebreaker over the Suns, they could win out and steal that spot if the Suns lose their back-to-back in San Antonio. That might not be in LAC’s best interest, however, because doing so might put them right in the Lakers’ crosshairs for a first-round matchup.

Then again, they’re only one game ahead of the Denver Nuggets for the 3-seed. Dropping to No. 4 would almost certainly ensure they’d avoid the Lakers in the first round … but because the fifth-place Dallas Mavericks are only one game ahead of the Lakers, and because the sixth-place Portland Trail Blazers are only 0.5 games ahead, even that’s not guaranteed; it’s still possible for LA to sneak into that No. 5 slot, after all.

That’s why games like the Blazers’ one-point loss to the Suns on Thursday night feel so excruciating: It’s not just the controversial foul call at the end, but the added drama of its impact on a playoff situation that is riddled with unknowns and uncontrollable variables despite there only being three days left in the season. Now Portland’s in danger of falling into the play-in round, which makes that kind of loss a real gut punch. Nobody wants to be in the play-in games where there’s the looming threat of missing the postseason entirely, especially if teams like the defending champion Lakers or Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors are lying there in wait.

Which is what makes this all so fascinating! We’ve gotten this far without even mentioning the race for the 1-seed in the East; the 4-5-6 race in the East between the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and New York Knicks; the streaking Washington Wizards trying to shock the world with two play-in wins; the Boston Celtics hoping to avoid total collapse in the play-in round without Jaylen Brown; the likelihood of Steph Curry vs. LeBron James in the first play-in game; the Chicago Bulls clinging to life support in the play-in hunt; and the hundreds of various scenarios that could unfold in each conference depending on which team wins how many of its remaining games.

The fact is, there’s added weight to every game at this time of season, and while some of that’s due to better parity and how many teams are clustered within striking distance of each other in the standings, it’s also because of the added benefit of expanding the field a bit. Teams that would normally be pitifully tanking actually have something to play for as they fight for a play-in spot. The teams at the bottom of the normal playoff field have reason to scratch and claw their way into the guaranteed field of six, and the contenders have reason for pause about their end-of-season strategies when they have no idea who they’ll be playing.

That issue may be exacerbated by the nature of teams like the freaking Lakers and Warriors being down there, but boy is it compelling to witness unfold! Even if the actual play-in games themselves are totally boring blowouts, no one should forget the effect their simple existence is having on the last week of the regular season, which has been far more entertaining across the league than usual.

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