The 2024 NBA Play-In Tournament Games, Ranked

The NBA, in its never-ending effort to get teams to take the regular season more seriously, instituted the Play-In Tournament back in 2020-21. The idea is simple: Give more teams an opportunity to make the playoffs, and even if they’re a sacrificial lamb to a 1-seed, they’re going to go for it. And outside of what the Dallas Mavericks pulled down the stretch last year, the idea has generally been a major success.

This year, the Play-In Tournament features six teams that won at least 46 games — in the first three editions, there was exactly one team that won 46 or more and needed to settle its postseason fate through the tournament. Teams this good usually have a spot in the playoffs at this juncture, which hopefully means that this year’s edition of the Play-In is the best yet. And before things begin, we ranked all four of the games that we’ll see over the next two nights, beginning with the one that doesn’t include any of those six teams that won at least 46 games.

4. Atlanta Hawks vs. Chicago Bulls

And now, a brief history of the 9-10 game in the Eastern Conference:

2020-21: Indiana (34-38) beat Charlotte (33-39), 144-117
2021-22: Atlanta (43-39) beat Charlotte (43-39), 132-103
2022-23: Chicago (40-42) beat Toronto (41-41), 109-105

It hasn’t exactly produced the most aesthetically pleasing basketball of all time — the most memorable thing from any of those games involved DeMar DeRozan’s daughter, Diar, completely throwing off the the Raptors’ rhythm at the free throw line in their own building. And either team that wins this game has to play a Heat or a Sixers team that is just better than them, and if they win that game, they then have to go play Boston.

So, yeah, it’s very easily to be nihilistic about this matchup of sub-.500 teams, because the winner will have a major uphill battle to climb once this game comes to an end. As an actual basketball game, it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to say that both of these teams know this environment — Atlanta has made the Play-In each of the last two seasons, while Chicago participated last year. Being in a one-game playoff is not fun, and there is certainly something to be said for knowing what this environment will bring.

This is a big time styles make fights game, as Atlanta is fifth in the league in pace and Chicago is 28th. It does not feel like a stretch to say that the team that can impose their will on the game will win it. Can Trae Young (who hasn’t been great since coming back from hand surgery, but showed a few years ago he can level up his game in the postseason) and Dejounte Murray get the Hawks running and generate good looks from three, even if Saddiq Bey, Jalen Johnson, and Onyeka Okongwu will likely miss the game due to injury? Can Coby White and the Nikola Vucevic/Andre Drummond duo provide enough on offense alongside DeMar DeRozan, particularly if Atlanta get up a ton of shots from behind the three-point line? Regardless, here’s hoping we get a good game, if for no reason other than Young and DeRozan going shot-for-shot down the stretch would be a blast.

3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Pelicans

If both of these teams reach the highs they’re capable of reaching, this game is going to be a blast. The problem: For whatever reason, when these teams have matched up this season, we’ve gotten nothing but blowouts. There were the two most high-profile matchups, most notably the 133-89 Lakers drubbing of the Pelicans in the In-Season Tournament semifinals that led to Zion Williamson receiving waves and waves of criticism from just about everyone. And while the regular season finale ended with a 124-108 Lakers win, that’s a bit generous to New Orleans, who trailed by as many as 32 points in the second half.

The Pelicans did pick up a 20-point win on New Year’s Eve, while the Lakers won by 17 in February. Perhaps both of these teams will bring their A-games this time around, as the winner of this game earns an automatic playoff berth, the 7-seed in the Western Conference, and a matchup with the defending champion Denver Nuggets.

The Pelicans have to figure something out for LeBron James. It’s never an easy job, although if there’s one team that you might think would be able to throw bodies at him, it’s New Orleans, which has Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy, and Larry Nance. Instead, James is averaging 28.3 points, 11.8 assists, and 6.3 rebounds against the Pelicans this year while shooting 55.1 percent from the field, 60 percent from three, and 93.3 percent from the free throw line. If that continues, it’s hard to see the Pelicans nabbing the 7-seed.

But if they can drag the Laker offense into the mud — which has been harder as of late, especially when James and Anthony Davis have been flanked by Spencer Dinwiddie, Austin Reaves, and Rui Hachimura — that would be big. If they can get space for Williamson to attack the paint due to their shooters spacing the floor, that would also be big, especially if Williamson’s able to get Davis in foul trouble. Still, the way this series played out this year has not been kind to the Pelicans, and this might be as much about overcoming a mental hurdle in a big game as anything.

2. Golden State Warriors vs. Sacramento Kings

It’s incredibly unfortunate that two of Sacramento’s most important players, Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, are sidelined due to injury. Remember: Last year, these two teams played an absolutely hellacious first round series that the Kings very well could have won if De’Aaron Fox doesn’t suffer a broken finger. It went seven games! Draymond Green got suspended mid-series for stomping on Domantas Sabonis! The series ended with the Warriors going into Sacramento and running the Kings off of their own court!

Adding to the intrigue: These teams have played four games against one another this year. All of them were prior to the All-Star break, yes, but three of them were decided by a single point. The fourth was an 8-point Warriors win. They split the season series. Both teams have gone through a ton of overhaul since they last played, but it’s still a pair of teams that know each other and bring their A-games when they step on the floor together.

Obviously all the attention is going to be on the big guns — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Green, Sabonis, Fox. But this game is so interesting because of the relatively new faces, whether they’re guys who weren’t around last year (Chris Paul, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Brandin Podziemski, Keon Ellis) or blossoming stars who will shoulder a larger burden than they did in the first round in 2023 (Jonathan Kuminga, Keegan Murray). Jackson-Davis is particularly interesting, because Golden State won last year in part because Kevon Looney just inhaled rebounds on both ends of the floor. Can the rookie from Indiana do that — particularly on offensive boards, where he can get them extra possessions against the best defensive rebounding team in the league.

Ultimately, it’s very possible this game comes down to the stars, as the league has put those first five guys I rattled off in the last graf into a win-or-go-home situation. Golden State is entering the postseason as the hottest team in the Western Conference (they’ve won 8 of their last 10), while Sacramento has the worst record over the last 10 games (4-6) of any team in the West. Can that destructive two-man game of Fox and Sabonis carry them for 48 minutes, or are we going to get the latest Curry masterclass in a big game, with Green putting his fingerprints all over everything and Thompson continuing his strong close to the season? I can’t wait to find out.

1. Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Outside of possibly the Clippers, no team in the NBA is more defined by a never-ending quest to overcome its postseason demons than the Philadelphia 76ers. Right away, they’ll get a chance to excise one of them when they take on their old friend Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, which beat them in the conference semifinals back in 2022 and gave us an all-time weird quote from James Harden.

Of course, this would mean they have to overcome whatever the hell gets into the Heat every year in April and May, which is the most powerful force in all of the NBA. Does it matter that the Sixers have been outstanding when Joel Embiid plays this year, and they’re entering the postseason on the longest winning streak in the league, and the game is in Philly, and Terry Rozier is out? Of course not! Well, all those things probably do matter a lot, but there’s just something about once we get to this time of year that leads to the Heat collectively raising their level.

Embiid and Bam Adebayo are going to go to war against one another, particularly when the Sixers have the basketball and Adebayo looks for any little trick he has up his sleeve to keep the reigning MVP from taking over. The last time these teams played (a 109-105 Sixers win, the only time Embiid has played against Miami this season), the quartet of Butler, Haywood Highsmith, Cody Martin, and Rozier all got cracks at guarding Tyrese Maxey, who had 37 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds. On the other end of the floor, Kyle Lowry primarily took on the Butler assignment and limited him to 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting. Can he do that again? If not, how do guys like Kelly Oubre or Nic Batum hold up against him? What weird stuff do do Erik Spoelstra and Nick Nurse — two coaches who have been in the Play-In before and understand that you have to go for broke in a game like this — have up their sleeves?

The winner of this game ends up on the side of the Eastern Conference bracket that avoids Boston until the conference finals — lose, and it’s a one-game playoff with the Celtics waiting for you right after. With respect to the Knicks, Bucks, and Pacers, either of these teams could win two series if things go the right way for them. The urgency that both of these teams will need to have is going to make this game must-watch.