Analysis: Emotion proves the NBA play-in tournament works
Patrick Beverley jumped atop a table, then cracked open a postgame beer for the whole world to see and used so many bad words that the league fined him $30,000. Miles Bridges briefly lost control of his emotions, threw his mouthpiece and was fined $50,000. Clint Capela was so overjoyed that he punched himself in the chest a few times.
The NBA says the playoffs start on Saturday.
Technically, that’s correct. It’s also anything but the truth. They’ve started already. The emotions from this week alone prove that much.
On the NBA schedule this weekend, there are eight different Game 1’s. Game 1’s are nice, but no team’s season will end on Saturday or Sunday. And nothing that happens in those games this weekend will match the drama that the league offered up on when the play-in tournaments started on Tuesday and Wednesday, and more drama is certain when the last games of the play-in round happen on Friday.
On Tuesday, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant earned a playoff spot when Brooklyn topped Cleveland, then Beverley and Minnesota absolutely let loose after clinching a berth in the Western Conference playoffs by topping the Los Angeles Clippers.
On Wednesday, there were essentially two Game 7’s — Atlanta, with Capela chest-punching himself in celebration, moved on by ending Charlotte’s season, while New Orleans moved on by ending San Antonio’s season. Bridges threw his mouthpiece as he left the court after getting ejected, and the mouthguard hit a teenage girl.
“I was aiming for a guy that was screaming at me,” Bridges said, calling his actions unacceptable and saying he’ll accept any sanction the NBA sends his way — hours later, the NBA hit him with the fine. He also wants to reach out to the girl and apologize, he said.
There’s no justifying what he did, and he didn’t try to justify his actions. He’d never thrown anything into the crowd, he said. But the playoffs were at stake, and he lost his head.
“I apologize, for sure,” Bridges said.
And on Friday, two more Game 7’s await — Atlanta plays at Cleveland for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, New Orleans visits the Clippers for the No. 8 seed out West.
“I mean, it was incredible,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch said of the atmosphere for Tuesday’s game on the Timberwolves’ home floor against the Clippers. “Walking out there for the jump ball you could just tell that it was going to be an electric night. Crowd was into it from the jump. ... it was unreal.”
In other words, it felt like the playoffs.
That’s because it basically is the playoffs.
The NBA separates the regular season, the play-in tournament and the postseason in terms of statistics. For recordkeeping purposes, the all-time lists of things only takes into account regular season numbers — otherwise, LeBron James would already have passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer, something that won’t officially happen until around the midpoint of next season if James is healthy.
And the playoffs are a 16-team tournament, not a 20-team tournament. Finch didn’t get a playoff win on his record on Tuesday, in the league’s eyes. Which is fine. It won’t be forgotten, but doesn’t count.
But the play-in has teams playing for their playoff lives. It’s a Game 7 feel. Game 7’s don’t happen in the regular season. Bridges almost certainly wouldn’t have lost his head if this was some throwaway game in January.
This was different.
There are big NBA games all season, sure, but no win-or-go-home moments until this time of year. More will come over the next two months, but there are no guarantees of any Game 7’s in the playoffs.
The play-in makes them automatic.
The play-in tournament wasn’t universally beloved when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver first floated the idea. It had kind of a wonky start, put into place at the restart bubble at Walt Disney World two years ago to make up for the fact that a full 82-game season wouldn’t be played.
Portland topped Memphis in that first play-in game, in a gym that had no fans from the general public — it was the bubble, remember — but was still jammed with players from other teams who just wanted to be there and experience the atmosphere. It was loud, there was cheering, and a Saturday afternoon in mid-August made clear that the NBA had found the perfect wrinkle to serve as a prequel for Round 1’s in future Aprils.
James hasn’t always been a fan of the format. “Whoever came up with that ... should be fired,” he once famously said. That was before the Los Angeles Lakers needed the play-in to make the playoffs last year, and before the Lakers didn’t even qualify for the play-in this year.
James was wrong on that take. And even though Silver just about confirmed that the play-in is here to stay, it still isn’t officially official. It will be, soon enough.
“What we’re seeing is a far greater impact essentially on the last month of the season where teams are either jockeying to get into the play-in tournament itself or jockeying to get out of the play-in tournament with a locked-in sixth seed,” Silver said last week. “We’re pleased with it. There may be a need to tweak it additionally. We’ll see how it goes this year, but I think it’s going to become a fixture in this league.”
As it should. Because it works.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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