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Brian Westerholt/Associated Press
The 2021 NBA play-in tournament is filling up quickly.
One night after the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors secured their spot in the Western Conference, the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets punched their ticket in the East.
The Pacers got in by beating the Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers, while the Hornets were awarded their spot by way of the Chicago Bulls’ loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
The Miami Heat managed to skate around it and into a top-six seed with Tuesday’s road triumph over the Boston Celtics, who are either one loss or one New York Knicks win away from landing in the play-in tournament themselves.
As the dominoes continue dropping ahead of Sunday’s campaign-closing curtain drop, let’s update the play-in standings after Tuesday’s slate and predict how the tournament will play out in both conferences.
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John Raoux/Associated Press
7. Boston Celtics: 35-34
8. x-Charlotte Hornets: 33-36
9. x-Indiana Pacers: 33-36
10. Washington Wizards: 32-37
11. Chicago Bulls: 29-40 (-3)
7. Los Angeles Lakers: 39-30
8. x-Golden State Warriors: 37-33
9. x-Memphis Grizzlies: 36-33
10. San Antonio Spurs: 33-35
11. New Orleans Pelicans: 31-38 (-2.5)
12. Sacramento Kings: 31-38 (-2.5)
x-clinched play-in tournament berth
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Not to suck the air out of the Windy City, but let’s start with the relatively obvious prediction: The Bulls aren’t getting in. The Zach LaVine-Nikola Vucevic tandem intrigues but not enough to make up this much ground in this little time.
So, the four-team field will likely remain the same: the Celtics, Hornets, Pacers and Wizards, probably in that order. Indiana could climb ahead of Charlotte, but that’s not what our crystal ball envisions.
The tournament will tip with the Celtics hosting the Hornets, and for as turbulent as things have been at times in Boston, there’s still enough for the Shamrocks to get this done. Yes, the loss of Jaylen Brown stings but not as much as it could have thanks to the recent offensive upticks by Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Besides, with all due respect to Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball, Charlotte doesn’t have a talent like Jayson Tatum.
Moving to the 9-10 matchup, the Wizards seem like the pick here even if they’re forced to travel to the Circle City.
Bradley Beal is playing the best basketball of his career, and he was already an established All-Star. Triple-double machine Russell Westbrook has put his best foot forward more often than not in recent months. Squeeze support scoring out of an additional source—Rui Hachimura or Davis Bertans are the likely suppliers—and that’s probably more than Indiana can handle, especially if defensive anchor Myles Turner remains on the shelf.
That sets up a win-or-go-fishing game between the Hornets and Wizards in Charlotte for the eighth and final seed.
The Hornets would have home-court advantage and the season series in their favor, but the Wizards have more established star power, and they’ve played better ball over the past month-plus. The game will run through the guards, so give us Beal and Westbrook over Ball and Rozier.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
We promise we aren’t being purposely boring, but we don’t anticipate changes to the play-in field, either. The Portland Trail Blazers are playing too well to predict a fall, and even with the San Antonio Spurs stumbling, they have enough of a cushion to hold off the Pelicans and Kings.
This would be a colossal win for the NBA’s broadcast partners, as a Lakers-Warriors matchup is about as good as this event can get. Stephen Curry and LeBron James going head-to-head in a winner-take-all? Sign. Us. Up.
As for the game itself, we can’t find reasons to go against the defending champs—assuming James’ nagging ankle injury doesn’t present too many problems. Even with James at less than 100 percent, the Lakers have Anthony Davis to offset what could be comical production from Curry. But Golden State will run into the same issue it has all season: getting enough support around its star.
Lakers win and advance.
The Grizzlies and Spurs would battle next on Beale Street. It’s tempting to think San Antonio’s organizational savvy—powered first and foremost by legendary longtime skipper Gregg Popovich—would give it a leg up on an unproven Memphis team. But the Spurs are in too bad of a funk (9-14 since April 1) to buy their stock, and the Grizzlies have seen some encouraging flashes from the recently returned Jaren Jackson Jr.
Memphis wins and heads off to Northern California.
But there isn’t enough grit and grind in the state of Tennessee to deny Curry a playoff spot. With the Chef cooking up offensive miracles, and Draymond Green doing all the disrupting he can do defensively, the Warriors survive an early scare and pull away late to make their official playoff return.