Warriors-Lakers game highlights NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament

Golden State’s exciting win over Memphis in Sunday’s regular season finale sets stage for a Steph Curry v LeBron James matchup on Wednesday night

Eli Mayerson, Sports Editor

With the NBA’s shortened COVID-19 season coming to a close, the postseason is here. 

But this season – which was reduced to 72 games – the NBA added a completely new gimmick, inspired by last season’s bubble.

Before Round 1 of seven-game playoff serieses can begin, the NBA has added the State Farm Play-In Tournament. And while it may sound confusing, it’s not as bad as it may seem.

In each conference, four teams that finished seeded 7 through 10 will be involved in the play-in games. For the opening round of these games, the 7th and 8th seeds will play, and the 9th and 10th seeds will face off. The winner of the 7v8 game will earn the 7th seed once the actual playoffs begin, while the loser will face off against the winner of the 9v10 game. The winner of that game gets the 8th seed.

To contextualize this in relation to the Golden State Warriors, they will be playing the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the Western Conference Play-In Tournament. If they lose, they’ll move on to play the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs for the 8th seed. If they win, they’ll clinch the 7th seed and face the fearsome Phoenix Suns in the first round.

The play-in added a whole new layer to the end of the 2020-21 NBA season. For the first time in many years, games that took place in the last few weeks of the season actually mattered. For example, on Sunday, the Warriors played the Grizzlies to determine who would get the 8th seed, and the same scenario happened in the Eastern Conference with the Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards.

Golden State and Washington won their games to grab the eighth seeds.

Each and every play-in matchup is enthralling, and will be extremely exciting to watch. Here’s a closer look at each game.

Eastern Conference, Round 1:

10th seed Charlotte Hornets @ 9th seed Indiana Pacers (Tuesday, 3:30 p.m. on TNT)

The Hornets fell a lot in the last two months of the season, losing 17 of their final 26 games. This was again a story of injuries, as the Hornets’ entire starting lineup was injured for awhile. Most of their starters are healthy now, except for arguably the most important player, Gordon Hayward, who is their first option on offense and arguably their best 3-point shooter.

Meanwhile, the Pacers have not been doing much better, winning exactly half of their games over the last two months. It seemed as though trouble may have been brewing in Indiana when a video clip came out of assistant coach Greg Foster and player Goga Bitadze in a heated verbal altercation that was nearly a physical one. Afterwards, several players ,including TJ Warren, came out and spoke against the coaching staff. 

But Indiana has looked decent when they are all there, and star Domantas Sabonis is a criminally underrated big man. They have excellent shot-blocking in Myles Turner, and overall a solid crew of above-average role players and borderline All-Stars. And with Charlotte being young and not having their veteran leader in Hayward, it’s pretty easy to call this one in favor of Indiana.

 8th seed Washington Wizards @ 7th seed Boston Celtics (Tuesday, 6 p.m. on TNT)

The red-hot Wizards climbed their way to the 8th seed behind the spectacular play of Russel Westbrook, who broke Oscar Robertson’s career triple-double record this season. Going 15-5 in their last 20 games, the Wizards are primed to make a splash against the Celtics.

The Celtics, however, do not have the same momentum. Going 5-10 in their last 15 games, they’ve faltered largely due to injuries, including one of their star duo, Jaylen Brown, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season due to wrist surgery.This is a huge hit to the Celtics team that largely underperformed this season.

If the Celtics had Brown and weren’t already on a losing streak, this would be a no-brainer for Boston. But because Westbrook has been so dominant lately, and because Bradley Beal can easily get hot and carry the Wizards on his own, the Washington Wizards will win and move on to face the Brooklyn Nets in the first round.

Western Conference, Round 1

10th seed San Antonio Spurs @ 9th seed Memphis Grizzlies (Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. on ESPN)

Although the Spurs have been sliding going into the play-in games, that was largely due to them having by far the toughest schedule in the final month of the season. They took care of business against the teams they were supposed to beat, and even got a surprise blow-out against the Milwaukee Bucks. They have relied upon the steady scoring and veteran presence of DeMar DeRozan, and will need him to be absolutely monstrous to make any noise in this game.

On the other hand, the Grizzlies once again overperformed in the regular season. Not only that, but they were also one of the hottest teams in basketball in the final stretch of the season. So hot, in fact, that it took a winner-takes-8th-seed scenario against the Warriors to decide their seeding. They lost that game, and so they end up with a somewhat easy matchup against the Spurs.

The Spurs just don’t have enough firepower to overcome the Grizzlies extremely solid roster. If Dejountae Murray is able to lock up Ja Morant, and DeRozan comes out shooting extremely well, then they have a chance. Otherwise, the Grizzlies will move on to the second round.

8th seed Golden State Warriors @ 7th seed Los Angeles Lakers (Wednesday, 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Now this is the matchup of the Play-In Tournament, and is the reason that whomever came up with this new idea should get a massive raise. LeBron James vs. Steph Curry and the Warriors in a one-game scenario? That is the stuff of legend.

The Lakers slid heavily over the last few months, entirely due to injuries to both their stars, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. With them both back, they went 2-2, but regular season struggles mean nothing to the Lakers. It’s all about getting into the playoffs. The Lakers will certainly be a dominant force, and if they earn the 7th or 8th seed, they would be a great pick to upset the higher seed.

The Warriors, however, are playing the best basketball all season. Wardell Stephen Curry has been absolutely dominant while earning his second NBA scoring title, and even James came out and declared that his vote for regular season MVP would be Curry. 

Andrew Wiggins has also been great this year, and a reliable force on defense. Nobody is stopping James, but Wiggins is a solid candidate to slow him down. The problem for the Warriors will be the Lakers’ multitude of solid big men. Davis, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrel, and Marc Gasol are all forces to be reckoned with in the paint, and nobody on the Warriors is a stellar paint defender.

Instead, they rely more upon team defense on that front, where Kevon Looney and Draymond Green are both above average at providing a bit of rim protection.

In the end, this game will be on the back of Curry. If he can do what he’s done many times this season already and dominate on the offensive side of the ball, it will make the game that much closer. It will also rely upon the shooting of his teammates; Jordan Poole, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Mychael Mulder will need to knock down their shots.

This game will be one of the most anticipated in recent years, and hopefully will deliver. In the end, to be objective, and to not be a homer, I will pick the Lakers to win, but of course my heart will be yearning for the Warriors and my cheers will be for Curry.

Below here are the matchups based on my predictions. None of these are actually set aside from the location and time of the game.

Eastern Conference, Round 2

9th seed Indiana Pacers @ 7th seed Boston Celtics

The Pacers are a very solid team, but they don’t have anyone who can reliably create their own shots in a high-pressure moment. Caris Levert and Malcolm Brogdon are both capable shot-creators, and Levert certainly has a future as that kind of guy, but he isn’t all there yet.

Although the Celtics are without their other star, Jayson Tatum’s skill and ability to hit impossible shots are enough on its own to carry the Celtics. Along with Kemba Walker’s increased performance toward the end of the season, the Pacers just don’t have enough firepower to compete with Boston. Thus, the Celtics will take the 8th seed and match up against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round as an exciting re-match of last year’s first round series.

Western Conference, Round 2

9th seed Memphis Grizzlies @ 8th seed Golden State Warriors

A re-match of Sunday’s game, this would be another exciting one between two very equal teams. But the Warriors did it once when it counted, and they can certainly do it again. In the event that this does happen, Golden State should be able to overpower the Grizzlies once again and advance to the playoffs to face Utah in round one.

Look for Eli Mayerson’s full NBA playoff preview on Friday.