How does the NBA play-in tournament work? Dates, projections and rules explained

The NBA's play-in tournament adds a fascinating wrinkle to the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. Teams were already less incentivized to tank games down the stretch because of the flattened lottery odds instituted in 2019. Now that the top 10 teams in the standings will finish the regular season with at least a chance to make the playoffs, more franchises will stay in the mix for longer.

Some players, like LeBron and Dallas Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic, were less than thrilled about the prospect of the play-in tournament, but we should expect some heated contests as teams fight to capture the final playoff seeds in each conference.

Here's everything you need to know about the play-in setup this season, including matchups, when and where it's happening and how it works.


Which teams are playing?

Here's a look at the play-in's opening-round matchups and schedule:

Eastern Conference (Tuesday, May 18)

Western Conference (Wednesday, May 19)


How does the NBA play-in tournament work?

There will be six total games involving eight teams as part of the play-in tournament, split up between the two conferences.

The teams that finish Nos. 1-6 in each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots, while team Nos. 7-10 in the standings will enter the play-in. Any team that finishes worse than No. 10 will be in the lottery. Since there is a chance for teams to finish with an uneven number of games played because of COVID-19 complications, the NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings.

Here's how the games will work:

  • Game 1: The No. 7 team in the standings by winning percentage will host the No. 8 team, with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The losing team gets another chance in Game 3.

  • Game 2: The No. 9 team will host the No. 10 team, with the winner moving on to Game 3. The loser is eliminated and enters the NBA draft lottery.

  • Game 3: The loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup will host the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup, with the victor grabbing the No. 8 seed in the postseason. The loser of Game 3 also enters the lottery.

This means that the teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages will have two opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot, while the teams with the ninth-highest and 10th-highest winning percentages need to win two straight games to advance.

How important is seeding within the play-in race?