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How Do NBA Playoffs Work? | New Format 2021

The 2020/21 NBA season has begun and there is a new and exciting playoff format. This includes a play-in tournament for multiple teams who are on the brink of elimination. The NBA with this new format hopes to bring more excitement and fans into the action, no team is safe.

How do the NBA playoffs work for 2021? The play-in tournament will involve 4 teams from each conference that are seeded from 7 to 10 in the standings. The 7 and 8 seeds will play one game and the winner will secure the 7th spot in the standings. The loser of the 7th and 8th seed plays the winner of the 9th and 10th seed, the winner of this game will be the number 8th seed. The 9 and 10th seed will have to win two games in order to advance and secure the 8th seed in the conference standings.

This format provides an opportunity for fans to cheer on their favorite team in which in past seasons would have had no chance to make the playoffs. If this sounds confusing, I will break down the play in tournament format further with examples using the 2018/19 season as an example.

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When are the NBA playoffs this Year?

In years prior the NBA playoffs usually take place in April and finish around early to mid-June. The 2020/21 NBA playoffs will take place from May 22 to July 22, 2021. This is because of the late start due to the pandemic which forced the NBA to create a bubble to finish the existing 2020 season in the summer. The 2020/21 NBA season started on December 22nd of 2020.

When is the play-in tournament?

The play-in tournament will take place within the week of the NBA playoffs on May 18, 2020. The playing tournament is the first of its kind in this format. The 2020/21 season has been shortened to 72 games this year making every game important especially as there is now more ways to find a playoff birth.

How exactly does the play-in tournament work?

So let’s take a look at a full NBA season such as the 2018/19 year. Where every team played 82 games.

There are 15 teams in each conference, the reason the NBA chose seeds 7 to 10 for their play-in tournament is that there are only a few games separating those positions by a few wins.

Western Conference

Using the Western Conference as our first example of how the play-in tournament would works:

7th seed – San Antonio

8th seed – LA Clippers

9th seed – Sacramento Kings

10th seed – LA Lakers

Hypothetically I am going to pick some winners to further help you understand the format. Although these may not be the real winners of the 2018/19 season so keep that in mind. This is only for educational purposes.

So we have the 7th seed, San Antonio Spurs versus the 8th seed, LA Clippers playing for the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They will only play one game and the winner secures the 7th seed and will face off against the 2nd place team in the Western Conference. Let’s say the Spurs won they would secure the 7th seed and play the Nuggets in the first round. The Clippers are not out just yet, they will play a second game to try and secure their original seed of 8th place. They have 2 opportunities to secure a playoff spot.

The 9th seed Sacramento Kings and 10th seed LA Lakers will face each other. The winner will advance to the next round against the LA Clippers against the Spurs. Let just say that the Lakers won. Sacramento will therefore be eliminated and done for the rest of the season. The Lakers will have to win a second game against the Clippers to lock the 8th seed. The homecourt advantage goes to the Clippers with the better record.

Remember this is a play-in tournament and not the NBA playoffs itself. The winner will be 8th in the standings and play the number one seed Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. So as you can see the 7th or 8th seed only needs to win one game while the 9th and 10th seed need to win 2 games. The team with the better record will get a homecourt advantage.

Eastern Conference

Using the Eastern Conference for our second example.

7th seed – Orlando Magic

8th seed – Detroit Pistons

9th seed – Charlotte Hornets

10th seed – Miami Heat

The 7th seed, Orlando Magic will faceoff against the 8th seed Detroit Pistons. Orlando will have a home-court advantage as they are the higher seed with the better record. They will play one game and the winner will take the 7th seed overall in the Eastern Conference standings. They will face the Toronto Raptors in the first round. The loser of this game is not done yet and has one more opportunity to secure the 8th seed by playing the winner of the 9th and 10th seed game.

The 9th seed Charlotte Hornets will face the 10th seed Miami Heat. Charlotte will have the home-court advantage. These two teams will have to win 2 games in a row to secure the 8th spot in the standings. The winner of the 9 vs 10 seed advances but plays a second game against the loser of the 7th versus 8th seed.

The 7th or 8th seed will always have a homecourt advantage when playing the winner of the 9th or 10th seed. The winner of this second game locks 8th place and plays the number one seed, Milwaukee Bucks.


The NBA Playoff Format

The same playoff format will still take place that the NBA has always used. 8 teams from each conference will play in the playoffs as follows. 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6, and 4 vs 5. All series will be a best of 7 game series where a team that wins 4 games first advance to the next round. The team with the higher seed will have home-court advantage. There are 3 rounds that take place against teams in the same conference. The last team standing in each conference plays in the NBA Finals, Conference winner vs Conference winner.

The winner between 1 vs 8 will play the winner of 4 vs 5, and the winner of 2 vs 7 will play the winner 3 vs 6. The last two teams standing play in the Conference Finals and the winner of this series goes to the NBA Finals.

How does home court advantage work in the NBA?

The team with the higher seed has home-court advantage and plays the first two games at home. Then the next two games away followed by one game at home, one game away, and another game at home if needed. This will depend on how many each team has won. So the format looks something like this if you have home-court advantage. 2 Games at Home, 2 Games Away, 1 Game at Home, 1 Game Away, 1 Game at Home. It may not be necessary to play all seven games, a team may win 4 in a row and there would be no need to play another game.

The best record in the Finals between the two teams will have home court advantage. If both teams are tied with the same record they will look at the season match up and look at which team between the two won the most games. If that is tied it will go to the team with the most points scored during the season.