Sports

The regular season has come to an end, but there are still key seedings being fought for ahead of the 2023 NBA playoffs. The play-in tournament is in its third year and will feature perhaps the most high-stakes matchups in its existence.

In the Eastern Conference, the No. 7 Miami Heat will host the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET), while the No. 9 Toronto Raptors play the No. 10 Chicago Bulls (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN). In the West, the No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers will host the No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET), and the No. 9 New Orleans Pelicans match up against the No. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).

Each winner of the 7-8 games will be the seventh seed in its respective conference. The winners of the 9-10 games will face the losers of the 7-8 games on Friday for the remaining eighth seeds.

The bulk of the intrigue surrounds the West, in which three of the four teams in the play-in were only as much as two games behind the sixth seed for a guaranteed playoff spot, including LeBron James and the Lakers. James has only missed the playoffs five times in his 20-year NBA career.

The East also will include big matchups, with stars such as Jimmy Butler, Trae Young and Zach LaVine looking to extend their seasons.

Our experts break down the field and the teams they project to make it out of the play-in and into the playoffs.


Which play-in matchup are you most excited to watch?

Tim Bontemps: How could there be any answer other than Lakers-Timberwolves? There are so many things to watch in this game. How will the Lakers look, and can they advance to what would be a fun series against the Memphis Grizzlies? How will the Wolves fare without Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels? Can Anthony Edwards do something spectacular and steal this game? Will there be any lingering fallout from Sunday’s drama? Honorable mention: Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan — who was a Raptor for nine campaigns — going back to Toronto for a play-in game on Wednesday will be fun too.

Ohm Youngmisuk: I can’t wait to see Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder take on Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans in Wednesday’s 9-10 West matchup. It should be an extremely hard-fought battle between teams with two strong young cores and emerging stars in SGA and Ingram. Both teams are well-coached and have very bright futures.

Tim MacMahon: The Lakers, who are the league’s most glamorous franchise and feature the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, somehow aren’t even the most interesting team at the moment in their play-in matchup. The Timberwolves’ roller coaster of a season took some wild twists with two punches during the Game 82 win over the Pelicans: Gobert’s jab to teammate Kyle Anderson‘s chest and McDaniels’ hand-fracturing haymaker on the wall.

Kendra Andrews: The Thunder-Pelicans play-in matchup has all of the tools to be an incredibly exciting game between two up-and-coming teams with young, promising stars looking to make a statement.

Andre Snellings: Hands down, Timberwolves vs. Lakers. I believe both teams are good enough to be in the second round of the playoffs if things break right, and I wouldn’t be shocked if one of them advanced beyond. The Lakers have a championship-tested core with their two MVP-caliber cornerstones. And now that they are healthy and used to playing with their new supporting cast, they are must-see TV. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have a unique combination of major talent and volatility that makes them must-see in a different way.

Which East and West teams do you have making it out of the tournament?

Youngmisuk: The Heat and the Hawks are my picks to advance out of the East play-in. Jimmy Butler, coach Erik Spoelstra and Miami’s vast experience should have the Heat ready to secure the No. 7 seed. And it’s time for Trae Young to step up with Dejounte Murray and beat either the Bulls or Raptors to take the No. 8 seed. Out West, the Lakers will be a headache not only for Minnesota but No. 2 Memphis should they advance Tuesday night. The Pelicans and Wolves will meet in a rematch of Sunday’s drama-filled meeting, with New Orleans coming away with the win this time.

Snellings: I like the Heat and Raptors to come out of the East and the Lakers and Timberwolves to make it out of the West. According to ESPN’s BPI, the Lakers are not only the best team in the play-in tournament with the eighth-best BPI in the league; they actually project to top three in the West. The Heat (14th) have a higher BPI than Atlanta (18th), but they also are a majorly veteran-laden team. For the second slot in the East, the Raptors (11th in BPI) project to be a close matchup with Chicago (12th), but they have a more complete starting lineup and should be able to advance to face the Hawks with a good chance to win on the road. Out West, the Pelicans (16th in BPI) have as good a team as either of the other two options (Timberwolves at 19th, Thunder 21st). But the Wolves have so much talent that, along with the home-court advantage, I think they should be able to snag the No. 8 seed.

Andrews: The Heat and Raptors are my picks to make it out of the Eastern Conference. Miami is that veteran team in the East play-in, and I trust Butler and Spoelstra to get it done. On the other hand, I don’t trust Young against the Raptors. In the West, the Lakers and Thunder will be making it out. It’s hard to bet against the Lakers when James and Anthony Davis are healthy. For Oklahoma City, I think Gilgeous-Alexander is going to show out and lead his team out of the play-in.

MacMahon: Both No. 7 seeds seem to be pretty safe bets. The Lakers feature two future Hall of Famers, and they played as well as anyone in the West down the stretch. The Heat gave Young hell in the playoffs last season, and I expect more of the same from Butler, Bam Adebayo & Co. I’ll go with the Hawks beating the Raptors for the East’s final bid and will pick an upset in the West with the Thunder going to the playoffs much earlier in their rebuild than anyone anticipated.

Bontemps: The Lakers and Timberwolves in the West and the Heat and Raptors in the East. While I could see New Orleans winning its way in, I’ll take the two teams with home-court advantage out West — even with the drama surrounding the Timberwolves after their newsworthy final day of the regular season and the especially devastating loss of McDaniels to a broken hand. Miami should definitely beat Atlanta in the 7-8 game, and Toronto has been consistently better than Atlanta over the past few weeks. The Raptors should be able to win a game in Atlanta on Friday after defeating Chicago, and I expect them to.

Which player will be most impactful in the play-in tournament?

Bontemps: Since I’m betting on Toronto to win a pair of games and make the tournament, I’ll go with Pascal Siakam. Neither Chicago nor Atlanta has a great option to try to slow Siakam down, and if the Raptors win both games, it’ll be in large part because Siakam has the ability to be the best player on the court.

Youngmisuk: Ingram. With Zion Williamson out, Ingram will have to carry the Pelicans out of the 9-10 matchup to the No. 8 seed. Ingram got a taste of postseason basketball last season and averaged 27 points, 6.2 assists and 6.2 rebounds. Now he is ready to take another step forward.

MacMahon: Davis averaged 38 points and 11 rebounds in two meetings with Minnesota this season, so I’ll go out on that limb. He has been the most dominant force during the salvaging of the Lakers’ season after the All-Star break, averaging 26.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 20 games (15 of which were wins).

Andrews: Gilgeous-Alexander has become a star this season, and for the Thunder to get out of the play-in, they’ll need their No. 1 guy to continue the dominant tear he has been on all season.

Snellings: James. It was tempting to go with Davis here, because he has played like an MVP when healthy and has a history of explosive games against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. But James lives for the postseason, has a wealth of playoff experience and will be the Lakers’ leader on and off the court to push them through the play-in and into the playoffs.

Which team are you most surprised to see in the play-in tournament?

Bontemps: I have been waiting for Miami to kick things into gear all season, and the Heat just haven’t been able to do so. Especially once the Nets began to fade after the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving trades, I assumed the Heat would move past Brooklyn into sixth. Instead, a team that was a Butler 3-pointer away from the NBA Finals last season now has to win a game to even get back into the playoffs.

Youngmisuk: The Thunder. When Oklahoma City lost Chet Holmgren before the season, it figured to be another rebuilding season and maybe a run at Victor Wembanyama in the lottery. But Gilgeous-Alexander took a leap from rising star to All-Star and legit superstar. Josh Giddey is on the rise, and Jalen Williams has been the most impressive rookie outside of Paolo Banchero.

Andrews: The Thunder are way ahead of schedule, so it’s a nice surprise to see them in the play-in. When Holmgren got injured over the summer, it was assumed OKC wouldn’t accomplish anything this year. But Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey and the rest of the young core have exceeded all expectations.

MacMahon: That would be the Thunder, who don’t have anybody older than 24 years old in their rotation. Oklahoma City has been patient with its rebuild, and this was at least a year earlier in the process than a postseason appearance seemed realistic. Give the Thunder, led by rising superstar Gilgeous-Alexander, credit for being competitive. And blame the Dallas Mavericks for being such a mess that there was an opening for OKC this season.

Snellings: Overall, it has to be the Thunder. Even when they started the season strong, I kept waiting for them to revert. They never did. Gilgeous-Alexander made the leap to full superstar, joining Stephen Curry (2015-16) as the only players in NBA history to average 30-plus points with a 50% field goal rate and a 90% free throw rate in a season and joining Michael Jordan as the only players age 24 or younger to average 30-plus points and five assists with a 50% field goal rate in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Fact or fiction: One of the play-in teams will win its first-round series

MacMahon: Fiction, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Lakers in particular made me look foolish. I’ll pick the Grizzlies to beat L.A. in the series that I expect to see, but there’s no question that James, Davis and their reconstructed supporting cast will have every right to be confident that they can move past Memphis despite not having home-court advantage.

Youngmisuk: Fact. The Lakers have a legitimate shot at winning their first-round series, whether it is as the No. 7 seed against Memphis or perhaps even as the No. 8 seed against the Denver Nuggets. If Davis and James can stay healthy, the Lakers have a superstar duo that knows how to win a championship with a balanced supporting cast and good chemistry. And their defense has been impressive in their recent turnaround.

Andrews: Fiction — for the most part. The Lakers have the best chance of winning a first-round series against the Nuggets or Grizzlies, but I don’t like the odds of the other three play-in teams against their potential first-round opponents.

Snellings: Fact. I think the Lakers, Timberwolves and Pelicans are good enough to win a series in a Western Conference with little separation between the top nine teams.

Bontemps: Fiction. There’s a reason all of these teams are in the play-in (yes, even the Lakers). Is it possible one of them wins a series — especially the Lakers? Sure. But while it’s possible they do it, I’m not betting on them beating either Memphis or Denver. Those teams have proved to be better over the course of the season.