This will be the third season we have had the Play-In tournament but it's never made as much sense as this season. In the West, the Lakers are in 7th with 43-39 wins, the Timberwolves and Pelicans are in 8th and 9th with 42-40 wins, and the Thunder are in 10th with 40-42. In the East, the Heat at 44-38 sit in 7th with a three-game lead over the 8th-seeded Hawks and 9th-seeded Raptors at 41-41 with the 40-42 Chicago Bulls rounding out the East.
Miami Heat vs Atlanta Hawks (Tuesday, April 10th, 7:30 pm ET, TNT)
The first game of the Play-In will be between the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks with the game being played in Miami. Both of these teams have generally disappointed based on early season expectations, but the real losers are Atlanta. The Hawks spent three draft picks to pair Dejounte Murray with Trae Young. It’s safe to say in year one the experiment wasn’t a success. This has nothing to do with Murray who had another productive season but because Young is unwilling to play off-ball. The Hawks were hoping that Quin Synder, former Utah Jazz head coach, could convince Young to do more off-ball but the Hawks are 10-11 since hiring Synder. The Heat on the other have disappointed as they were the one seed last season, but you could argue last year's team mightly overachieved with this being a more realistic finish for this squad. Bam Adebayo had his best offensive season as a pro, Jimmy Butler had another productive year, and Tyler Herro averaged over 20 points for the second season in a row. Miami is well-coached under Eric Spolstra and has plenty of playoff experience. I think the Heat have no problem beating the Hawks at home and claiming a spot in the first round.
LA Lakers vs Minnesota Timberwolves (Tuesday, April 10th, 10:00 pm ET, TNT)
After a late-season surge, the Lakers find themselves just one win away from the playoffs. After adding DiAngelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jared Vanderbilt at the trade deadline the Lakers have looked like a different squad going 18-9 since. This stretch has also included Lebron James missing 10 games. Most of the credit can be given to Anthony Davis who has averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks on 55% shooting during that stretch. Minnesota on the other hand has had as wild of a season as you could imagine. Karl Anthony-Towns missed 53 games, year one of the Rudy Gobert experiment was a massive failure, and Nas Reid had a season-ending injury. Despite all this, the Timberwolves' final game against the New Orleans Pelicans gave them a chance to move into the 8th seed avoiding the 9-10 game. The game started with Jaden McDaniels breaking his hand punching a wall, Brandon Ingram scoring 27 in the first half, and Rudy Gobert being sent home for punching Kyle Anderson. Despite all this again the Timberwolves came out on top behind Anthony Edwards and Karl Anthony-Towns play down the stretch. All of this is to say despite their flaws and dysfunctions Minnesota is a talented time I wouldn’t want to trifle with. All that being considered I am still taking the Lakers at home.
Toronto Raptors vs Chicago Bulls (Wednesday, April 11th, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN)
Both of these teams have had laboring seasons that I’m sure wouldn’t be completely distraught if they lost this game. Comparing this Bulls season to the previous Bulls season is a lot like a line from One Step Forward by Desert Rose Band, “One step forward and two steps back, Nobody gets too far like that.” A lot of the regression has to do with Lonzo Balls' mysterious knee injury but the Bulls have struggled offensively, especially shooting the ball. Chicago is currently last in the NBA in three-point attempts and three-point makes. The only saving grace this season has been the defense as the Bulls have surprisingly been a top-ten team on that end this season. Toronto has also taken some steps back when you look at the team they were entering the playoffs last year. The vibes were off from the start as the Raptor's starting five was rumored to be in trades for over half the season. Instead, a team that looked like a seller became a buyer trading for Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline. Since then this team has stabilized, becoming the defensive team we expect them to be and moving into the Play-In after being on the outside looking in. Offensively this team is still clunky. Fred Vanvleet can’t finish at the rim and Pascal Siakim, OG Annuoby, and Scottie Barnes all want to do the same thing. Even though Toronto seems like the safer bet because of experience and being at home I think the Bulls pull this one out. Zach Lavine has been on a tear down the stretch of this season and I think the dysfunction going on behind the scenes in Toronto leaks into this game.
New Orleans Pelicans vs Oklahoma City Thunder (Wednesday, April 11th, 10:00 pm ET, ESPN)
The final match of the first four Play-In games is between two middling squads that had very different expectations to start the year. New Orleans, after challenging the Suns in the first round last year without Zion Williamson, walked into this season with real expectations. Twenty games in, things were looking up with Williams healthy and productive, the bench looked like the best unit in the league, and the Pelicans were the top seed in the West. Then like clockwork, Williamson got injured, and what was once looked at as the deepest team in the NBA struggled to stay in the top 10. For the Thunder, it might not seem like it but they are mightly overachieved with their 40-42 record. There are a lot of reasons they should be bad. Oklahoma City started the year by losing their number one pick Chet Holmgren for the entirety of his rookie season. They don’t have a center so Josh Giddy is currently leading the team in rebounds at 7.5 a game. That lack of a center also means they struggle to protect the rim which they are the worst at in the league. Not to mention the oldest player on the team is Dario Saric who’s 29 and joined the team midway through the season. A lot of this season’s success can be attributed to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging over 30 points a game on 51% shooting from the field. His ability to maneuver around defenders and get to his spots has made him one of the most efficient scorers this season. Gilgeous-Alexander will be rewarded as he is well on his way to being a First-Team All-NBA. Despite the amazing regular season, the Thunder have had I think they’re still a year or two away from being real contenders. New Orleans is loaded with veterans and playoff experience that Oklahoma City simply doesn’t have. While Gilgeous-Alexander may be the best player on the court Brandon Ingram is right there with him. Since returning from injury in late January Ingram has averaged 27 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds with good efficiency. The Pelicans are far from a perfect team but I think they take care of this young gunning Thunder squad.
Final Two Games
Based on my predictions throughout the article my final two games of the Play-In would be the Atlanta Hawks hosting the Chicago Bulls in the East and the Minnesota Timberwolves hosting the New Orleans Pelicans in the West. In the West give me the Timberwolves. We just saw this match-up play out on the final day of the regular season and the Timberwolves won despite it seeming like everything was going wrong for them and Brandon Ingram dropping 42 points. The East match-up is a harder pick for me. The Bulls are playing good ball right now and overall it seems like the team is still trying to get better together. Atlanta on the other hand seems like a team that’s ready for its season to end. The Hawks are probably more talented but the Bulls still have multiple twenty-point scorers and a much better defense. I can’t believe I’m doing it but I have to Bulls winning two road games and claiming the eighth and final spot in the East.