A year ago, the NBA was gifted its ideal scenario for the first ever play-in tournament, when the Lakers and Warriors met in the 7-8 matchup in the West, drew huge viewership numbers, and provided star power for the league’s new method for finalizing the last two playoff positions in each conference.
This season, it looks like the league will once again see some big names participating in the play-in, with the Lakers and Nets both currently in a position to need to win elimination games to make it to the postseason. They are joined by a number of teams battling it out for the four play-in spots.
With just over 20 games remaining in the regular season, we’re going to look at the paths to the play-in in each conference, starting with the Eastern Conference.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (36-25): The Cavs aren’t out of the woods yet when it comes to the play-in race, as they are just a game up on Boston and 2.5 games up on Toronto for seventh. There are real questions about Cleveland’s ability to hold on, namely due to the lingering back injury that’s kept Darius Garland out lately, as well as Caris LeVert’s foot sprain. This was a team already short on guard depth that is now just trying to hold it together until their All-Star and big trade deadline acquisition can come back. Monday’s loss to Minnesota illustrated their issues with consistency just within individual games right now, and with a .502 strength of schedule remaining — including two games against the Bulls and three against the Sixers — Cleveland could find itself needing to scratch and claw their way down the stretch to hang on to a guaranteed playoff spot. They have two games against Toronto (March 6 and 24) that could prove very important to their ability to avoid the play-in.
6. Boston Celtics (36-27): The Celtics were the hottest team in the NBA from late January to just before the All-Star break, but they’ve stumbled just a touch of late, going 2-2 in their last four with losses to Detroit and Indiana that should’ve been opportunities to pad their lead over Toronto. Making those losses even more painful is that the Celtics have the fourth toughest remaining schedule in the NBA (.528) over their last 19 games, with games against the Warriors, Grizzlies (twice), Heat, Bulls, Jazz, and Bucks left. If there’s good news on the schedule front, it’s that this team has seemingly played up to competition of late and their closing schedule should ensure they stay plenty engaged. On top of that, they’re one of the few teams that is fully healthy right now, which has helped fuel their climb in the standings. From a play-in perspective, upcoming games against Brooklyn (March 6) and Toronto (March 28) stand out in terms of chances to put another full game between them and the teams below them trying to snag that last playoff position.
7. Toronto Raptors (33-27): The Raptors were, like Boston, really hot for a stretch of late January and February, going 8-1 at one point, but they started dragging their feet entering the All-Star break and haven’t been able to make a move on Boston to try and usurp the 6-seed, going 1-4 in their last five games before righting the ship in impressive fashion in Brooklyn. The good news for Toronto is that they have three more games to play than Boston down the stretch, providing some opportunities to play catch up. Making matters even better, their remaining SoS is just the 24th hardest remaining (.487) in their 22 games left, highlighted by a pair of games against Orlando as well as the Knicks, Pistons, Pacers, and Rockets still all remaining. Their next game might be the most important one they have, though, as they face the Nets once again on a back-to-back, this time at home in Toronto. Two wins in a row against the shorthanded Nets would give them a three-game cushion for the 7-seed while also drawing them ever closer to the Celtics, who they play at the end of March.
8. Brooklyn Nets (32-30): The Nets are playing with a skeleton crew most nights and will continue to do so for some time, as Kevin Durant remains out with his knee injury, Ben Simmons won’t play for at least another week, and Kyrie Irving remains sidelined for both home games and games in Toronto, one of the teams they’re trying to chase down. Their focus is simply on making it to the play-in and having all their guys back by then, but getting the 7- or 8-seed to ensure two cracks at a playoff berth is pretty important even for a team with this much talent likely on the way back. Brooklyn’s SoS is right around the league average (.495, 19th toughest), but the issue is that their toughest games come now when they have the least ammunition. As noted above, their second of a back-to-back with Toronto looms large (particularly without Kyrie) and then they face Miami, Boston, Charlotte, and Philly in the next week-plus when they are likely to remain shorthanded. A split against the Raptors would be a good starting point, but this is the team that can throw the biggest wrench in postseason plans for the top contenders in the East if they make it in and have KD, Simmons, and Kyrie.
9. Atlanta Hawks (29-31): The Hawks are, arguably, the East’s biggest disappointment this season considering the wave they were riding coming into the season after reaching the Conference Finals. Like a year ago, they started slow before turning things on in January, but they haven’t been able to keep that up this month. Atlanta is just 5-5 in February and cannot seem to build any positive momentum to try and catapult into the playoff race, which leaves them in a battle for their play-in lives with 22 games remaining. Atlanta does have an easier schedule remaining than most (.471 SoS, 26th hardest) and certainly has the talent to go on a run, but they have to start that ASAP to have any chance of escaping the 9/10 game. Boston and Chicago are up next for the Hawks, with key games against fellow play-in contenders the Wizards (March 4, April 6), Hornets (March 16), Nets (April 2), and Raptors (April 5) to come.
10. Charlotte Hornets (30-33): The story of the bottom of the East play-in race is, really, teams that have not seized opportunity. The Hornets are chief among them, going 2-9 in their last 11 games to fall into the second tier of the play-in, needing two wins to make the playoffs. Charlotte is a full three games back of Brooklyn for eighth, which seems like an incredibly difficult hole to dig out of considering at some point the Nets will get Durant and Bn Simmons on the court. Charlotte’s remaining SoS is .496, the 16th hardest in the league, and they have one game against everyone in the top-4 in the East remaining. The Hornets are going to have to figure out some way to defend better if they’re going to make a late season charge for the 8-seed, much less hold on to a play-in spot. Charlotte took a patient approach to the deadline and only time will tell if that is going to pay off, but they have games against the Nets (March 8, 27), Celtics (March 9), Hawks (March 16), and Wizards (April 10) to try and cement their play-in spot.
11. Washington Wizards (27-33): Somehow, the Wizards aren’t out of this thing as they’ve managed to tread water of late — 4-6 in their last 10 games — and are just 1.5 back of Charlotte. With Bradley Beal out for the rest of the year, most wrote Washington off, but they’ve managed to hang around and have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league (.469 SoS) to try and catch their divisional rivals in Atlanta or Charlotte for the last spot. They’ll get two cracks at the Hawks and a season finale against the Hornets to do so, but they’ll need to find a run somewhere in their closing stretch to catch and pass one of the teams ahead of them.
12. New York Knicks (25-36): Technically the Knicks aren’t out of it at 4 games back, but man, it is hard to see how they put together the necessary run to vault into real contention. They’ve lost five in a row and just about everything positive about last year’s team seems to have turned to negativity this season. Adding to their problems is the fifth hardest remaining schedule in the NBA (.519 SoS), and they might be officially out of this thing within a couple of weeks.