If you’re a hardcore basketball fan, you may have noticed that the NBA’s season ended a little bit differently this year. To the layperson, the changes may have been hard to spot, but trust me—they’re there. For one thing, all the games were played inside a bubble at Walt Disney World. (This is not normal for the league.) There was also Saturday’s Western Conference play-in game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. It, too, was atypical, but in a good way. The Blazers won this entertaining basketball aperitif, 126-122, to secure a spot in the postseason.
When the coronavirus pandemic truncated the regular season, some teams were engaged in playoff pushes, and they had to be given a fair chance to finish their pursuits. But picking up where everyone had left off was not realistic (or safe), and so the league compromised. There would be two week’s worth of “seeding” games, and, if the No. 9 seed in either conference was within four games of the No. 8 seed, the two would play a specially formatted tournament to decide who goes to the playoffs. The lower seed would have to win twice, while its higher-seeded opponent only needed to win one game to be declared the victors. In the East, the Orlando Magic secured the No. 8 seed without needing the play-in round. But in the West, you had a desperate team (the No. 8 Blazers) trying to hold off an extremely desperate team (the No. 9 Grizzlies). Desperation makes for some pretty great basketball, it turns out.
Under normal circumstances, Rookie-of-the-Year-in-waiting Ja Morant would have slunk out of our lives until next season, but, thanks to the play-in game, we got to see him perform when the stakes were high. The results are conclusive: He is pretty damn good.
Despite being part of a losing effort, Morant’s 35 points and 8 assists weren’t for naught. He earned some valuable quasi-playoff experience, something no young star on a No. 9 seed has ever gotten before.
The play-in game is an objectively good idea, and it’s a shame it took a global pandemic for the NBA to give it a shot. It’s not technically a single-elimination contest, but it packs a similar level of urgency (and March Madness provides an abundance of proof that single-elimination games are fun). Had the Grizzlies won, well, we’d get to watch a thrilling do-or-die affair on Sunday instead of no basketball at all.
Granted, win-or-go-home basketball makes for more volatile outcomes, but that’s the genius of roping in the lowest-seeded playoff contenders. The team that loses (and goes home) can’t really argue that it was treated unfairly. And with the incentive of a possible postseason berth, every team within touching distance has a reason to play hard down the stretch. It’s a cure for the recurring malaise that befalls the NBA every spring. Just look at the Phoenix Suns, who went 8-0 in the bubble, just barely missing out on the play-in game. It’s amazing what can happen when you give players something to play for.
There is no “right” format for the play-in game (or games), but, as the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor points out, other options may be considered if the NBA decides to make it a permanent feature.
The league has changed its playoff structure before, but it’s been a while since it made any changes that improved the postseason. Unlike when the NBA switched from best-of-five first-round series to best-of-seven in 2003, a play-in tourney would actually increase the number of tense, high-stakes contests.
Those doubting this plan should be forced to watch highlights from Saturday’s Blazers-Grizzlies slugfest, Clockwork Orange–style. Without the play-in game, this Damian Lillard dunk on Jonas Valanciunas wouldn’t exist.
Nor would this clutch C.J. McCollum step-back 3-pointer.
And Carmelo Anthony floating onto to the court like some ancient specter to ice the game for Portland? That’s one ghost story that we’d have never seen or heard.
And now, after their play-in victory, the No. 8 Blazers will stick around to haunt the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. That series starts on Tuesday. And if the NBA is sensible, the next play-in round will begin in the summer of 2021.