Nylon Calculus: Play-in tournament favorites for each matchup

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images /

The NBA play-in tournament will feature single-elimination contests between some of the league’s most exciting teams. What do the numbers say about the likely winners of each conference’s bracket?

Beginning May 18, the NBA is holding its play-in tournament to decide the No. 7 and No. 8-seeded playoff teams from each conference.

The tournament is the first of its kind though play-in competitions to determine playoff qualifications are not a completely new concept in American professional basketball. Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies met in the NBA Bubble to decide the West’s 8th seed, and in 1956 the Syracuse Nationals and New York Knicks met in a play-in game to determine which team advanced to the postseason.

This year’s tournament features two teams that qualified for the conference final round last year, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. In addition, some of the league’s best guards — including Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, and Ja Morant — will be in the lineup with winner-take-all stakes on the line. Suffice to say, there will be plenty of fan interest.

In a single-elimination style tournament (and in the case of the higher-seeded teams, double-elimination) odds can be wacky, teams are likely to stick with their chosen stylistic identity, relying on what has brought success through the first seventy-two games.

While we should expect some inherent variance in shooting, rebounding, and turnovers for each of the four contests, stylistic profiles are the single-best predictor of which team should have an advantage in each respective matchup.

Eastern conference play-in tournament matchups

(No. 9) Indiana Pacers vs. (No. 10) Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have found themselves in the most precarious position possible after holding the East’s No. 8 seed for the last two weeks. Charlotte lost to Washington on the final day of the regular season, dropping them down to No. 10 and allowing Washington, as the No. 8 seed, two chances to qualify for the playoffs.

The numbers agree that Charlotte is the worst team of the East’s play-in group; the Hornets have the worst net rating of any team that has not been eliminated from postseason contention.

Indiana has also had a tumultuous road to the play-in round — rumors have circulated that head coach Nate Bjorkgren’s future with the Pacers is uncertain, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Pacers have faired better than the Hornets on both sides of the ball this season, and Indiana’s defense should be fit to slow the Hornets’ high-octane transition offense.

The Pacers are one of the league’s stingiest teams with the ball, committing turnovers on 13 percent of possessions. The Hornets score 10 percent of their non-garbage time points off turnovers, per pbpstats.com, but do so at the league’s best efficiency. Charlotte is particularly desperate for these opportunities since losing Gordon Hayward to a foot injury in early April. During this stretch, Charlotte is the association’s fifth-worst offense, scoring a meager 93 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Pacers two biggest weaknesses on defense, allowing second-chance points and attempts at the rim, were exploited by Charlotte in the season series. Hayward was available for all three contests, though he did initially injure the foot that will sideline him on Tuesday during that third meeting. Since then, the Hornets have worked to get a higher percentage of their shots at the rim. Indiana has allowed opponents to take more shots at the rim than any other team this season.

To survive, Indiana will need to defend the paint and continue to limit turnovers which could fuel a Hornets offense missing its lead shot creator. Charlotte, one of the NBA’s better 3-point shooting teams this season, has been the sixth-worst without Hayward in the lineup. The Hornets could get hot in a single game, but Indiana should have a better chance if they force Charlotte into long jump shots in halfcourt situations.

Favored: Indiana Pacers

(No. 7) Boston Celtics vs. (No. 8) Washington Wizards

The Celtics had one of the more difficult paths to the play-in tournament due to missed time from COVID protocols and injury. Boston had to survive multiple stretches without one of their two stars this season, and Jaylen Brown is out with a torn ligament in his wrist that required season-ending surgery.

The Wizards were also tested with Bradley Beal out of the lineup but they found their groove during a 12-2 stretch in April that salvaged their playoff hopes. Beal recently returned from a hamstring injury but showed noticeable discomfort during their win over the Hornets on Sunday.

Assuming he’s available for the Wizards, this game should be a hard-fought contest given the offensive firepower on both rosters. Both teams score an above-average portion of their points in the paint and rely on the dribble drive to fuel the rest of their offense, with Washington preferring the mid-range and Boston the 3-pointer.

During their three meetings in the regular season, the Celtics scored more of their points from beyond the arc while the Wizards relied on points at the rim and from the free-throw line.

Free throws will likely be a factor — Boston allows opponents to get to the line at a top-10 rate and the Wizards shot the third-most free throws this season. If the Wizards win the free-throw battle handily, that could be the difference in a close game.

The Celtics will look to offset the imbalance at the charity strike with extra shots from outside — they’ve taken 42 percent of their shots from beyond the arc since the All-Star break, per Cleaning the Glass. During this same stretch, Washington has only allowed opponents to take 32 percent of their attempts from 3, and have forced the most mid-range attempts of any defense.

With Brown out, the Celtics will rely on Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart to knock down open shots — both take around 50 percent of their attempts from 3-point range. Washington should be comfortable with Boston settling for outside shots if it prevents Walker and Jayson Tatum from wreaking havoc in the paint.

Favored: Washington Wizards

Western conference play-in tournament matchups

(No. 9) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (No. 10) San Antonio Spurs

While this matchup is the less enticing of the two Western Conference play-in games, the battle between Memphis and San Antonio is intriguing because of its nuance. The Grizzlies — the young, fast-paced, hurried group — and the Spurs — the old, slowed-down, and intentional outfit — contrast stylistically more than any two teams. This clash of styles should make for a tug of war, where each team fights to bend their opponent to the will of their game plan.

Memphis knows its offensive strengths and sticks to them. The Grizzlies are the league’s most efficient transition offense and the third-best offensive rebounding team. But, Memphis is a league-average offense due to their inability to score effectively in the halfcourt.

The Grizzlies’ meetings with the Spurs all occurred before the All-Star break when Memphis was struggling to score the ball as the league’s sixth-worst offense. And yet, San Antonio flipped Memphis’ offensive style on its head and it worked to the Grizzlies’ advantage.

The Spurs have had the league’s best transition defense all season, and they were effective in limiting Memphis opportunities in two of the three regular-season meetings. But in all three contests, the Grizzlies scored at an above-average rate in the halfcourt, with a cumulative 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. San Antonio will have to decide between limiting Memphis’s transition opportunities and focusing on Grizzlies shooters in the halfcourt and hope they make the right decision.

On the other side of the ball, the Spurs’ focus will be on limiting turnovers and relying on their preferred shot selection. For the fifth consecutive season, the Spurs are top-five in the frequency of shots taken from the mid-range. But unlike these previous years, San Antonio has shot at a league-average rate on such attempts. For a team that shoots so poorly at the rim and from the free-throw line, they’ll have to generate easier opportunities than those they’ve settled for in the regular season.

In the 309 possessions against the Grizzlies this season, San Antonio traded its short mid-range shots for more valuable corner 3-point attempts. While the Grizzlies allowed the fewest corner 3s in the league this year, they didn’t improve at the rate of the rest of the league in limiting corner 3s against San Antonio, per Cleaning the Glass. This trend could be a mere coincidence from a small sample size, or the Spurs may have found an opening in the Grizzlies defense they’ll be able to exploit.

Favored: San Antonio Spurs

(No. 7) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (No. 8) Golden State Warriors

This game is more than just an opportunity to see LeBron James and Steph Curry face off in a high-stakes situation for the first time since the 2018 NBA Finals. The stylistic differences between the Warriors’ and Lakers’ play make this matchup even more enticing on paper.

Even though both rosters feature offensive-minded superstars, the outcome will be predicated on defense. The Lakers and Warriors are both top-five defensive teams, even if each employs a different defensive game plan.

The Lakers are superb in every facet of the defensive game — they allow few second chances, turn opponents over, and limit opportunities for easy points at the free-throw line. The Warriors, on the other hand, allow opponents to score from the free-throw at the second-highest rate in the league.

In their three matchups this season, the Lakers shot 28 or more free-throws per 100 field-goal attempts, a free-throw rate that is 10 free-throw attempts higher than league average. While referees make fewer calls in the postseason (if that’s what we consider the play-in tournament), the Warriors should focus on removing these easy points from the Lakers’ offensive diet.

Even more concerning, the Warriors have allowed the Lakers to score at a league-best rate at the rim this season.

While this a small sample of 309 possessions, the Lakers elevated opportunity to score inside during the regular season should be a focal point for Steve Kerr and the Warriors. Los Angeles has struggled to score outside of the paint all season and averaged a mere 108 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. The Lakers were 16-7 in games this year where they took 40 percent or more of their attempts at the rim.

On defense, the Lakers are tailormade to handle the offensive attack of Curry and the Warriors. The Warriors shoot 40 percent on 3s as a team — one of the league’s best marks — but Lakers opponents have shot only 36 percent on 3-pointers this season, with just 34 percent of shots taken coming from outside. The Warriors aren’t necessarily better when they take a higher volume of threes, with a record of 19-16 in games when they shoot 40 percent or more of their shots from outside.

Counterintuitive to prevailing thought, the Lakers should allow players other than Curry, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Kent Bazemore, and Damion Lee — Golden State’s best shooters — to take these shots from outside. Of course, the Lakers will load up on Curry, and trap the pick-and-roll to force other Warriors to beat them. Golden State will need to make open threes in these 4-on-3 opportunities early in the game to open up the court in the second half.

Favored: Los Angeles Lakers

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