This article breaks down four teams participating in the play-in tournament and discusses why they’re predicted to make it into the playoffs based on their overall 2021-2022 season’s performance.
The 2021-2022 NBA season will feature its second ever play-in tournament, set to begin Tuesday, April 12. Eight teams will battle head-to-head to determine the seventh and eighth playoff seeds in the Eastern and Western Conference. The teams ranked seventh through 10th in their respective conferences will make up the participants of the play-in tournament. The bottom ninth and 10th seeds will play an additional round to advance in the playoffs. As the standings show, these eight teams are competing in order from seven through 10.
From the Western Conference:
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- Los Angeles Clippers
- New Orleans Pelicans
- San Antonio Spurs
From the Eastern Conference:
- Brooklyn Nets
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Atlanta Hawks
- Charlotte Hornets
Let’s Start With The Eastern Conference.
No. 7 Seed: Brooklyn Nets
After Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden or “the big three” shattered, the Nets have seemed to plummet into a downward spiral. It started with Kevin Durant straining his hamstring followed by Kyrie Irving only being able to contribute part-time for most of the season. At this point, James Harden had seen enough and took a first-class ticket straight to Philadelphia to join Joel Embid, who is this season’s third-ranked potential MVP.
Despite the string of setbacks, the Nets appear to have found their stride. New York City lifted its COVID-19 state mandates March 24, clearing Irving to play in home games, which will have a significant impact on this team’s outcome in the playoffs. Irving set a new Nets franchise record with 60 points, going 20-for-31 from the field against the Orlando Magic on March 15. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant returned from his injury like he never left on March 3, dropping 31 points in a 113-107 loss to the East’s first-seeded Miami Heat.
Shortly after having Durant and Irving back on the floor together, a quantum leap has occurred in the Nets’ standings. Brooklyn has now surpassed the Cleveland Cavaliers for the seventh seed, and the two teams are gearing up to be each other’s first round matchup. Although the two teams are currently tied, Brooklyn owns the tiebreaker.
Under normal circumstances, Brooklyn vs. Cleveland would be a tough battle. However, seeing as Collin Sexton and Dean Wade underwent season-ending surgeries to repair meniscus injuries in their knees, not to mention Jarrett Allen missing 14 straight games due to a fractured left finger, it’s doubtful if this team will be much of a match for Brooklyn. The health status of Cleveland’s center is still unknown if he’ll be able to return in time for the Cavaliers’ first play-in game.
The odds are tipped greatly in the Nets’ favor, but their biggest adversary isn’t the Cavs, it’s their defense (or lack thereof). The Nets are ranked as only the 20th best defensive team in the league. Not giving enough effort on the defensive end they have had an uphill battle all season, and regardless of how sharp their shooters are, if the Nets continue to respond idly on their defense, they won’t make it out of the East.
No. 9 Seed: Atlanta Hawks
From beating the Sixers in a seven game upset that left Ben Simmons still reeling from the recoil, to making an appearance in the Eastern Conference final against the eventual 2021–22 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, expectations for the gritty Atlanta Hawks team soared. Following their postseason success, the Hawks have probably been one of the more disappointing teams to watch. The only constant in their season-long funk? Trae Young.
Young has been averaging nearly 28 points and 10 assists per game this season and, year after year, continues to improve his game. Yet all of this means nothing if the core group hasn’t evolved with him. The starters Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter have to perform as supporting stars on this team instead of just being “good basketball players.” To do so means developing their game and taking advantage of the opportunity to play off Young or looking for shots on their own. Huerter is averaging only 12.1 points per game (ppg), shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from the three-point line. On the flip side, Hunter is averaging 13.4 ppg while shooting 44.2 percent from the field.
Atlanta’s second-leading scorer behind Young is John Collins, who has only played six games in the last two months because of a plantar fascia tear and a right ring finger sprain. The Hawks’ starters and reserves desperately need to step it up and play their roles to support Young if they hope to make it out of the tournament and into the postseason.
Twelve points with barely any assists is simply unacceptable for starters on a title-contending team. On the bright side, Atlanta has already displayed the level of grit and tenacity required to make it into the Conference final. It’s only a matter of time before they lock in again and make a run.
Atlanta has the head-to-head tiebreaker over both the Cavaliers and Charlotte, which gives them a home-court advantage against Charlotte (their first round matchup) and the Cavs (if they beat Brooklyn).
On to the Western Conference.
No. 7 Seed: Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been playing like the team the league thought they’d be since the start of 2022. On March 14, their All-Star center, Karl-Anthony Towns, dropped a career-high 60 points to defeat the San Antonio Spurs 149-139. According to The Athletic, Towns’ 60 points set a new single-game franchise record and marked the most points scored in a single NBA game this season.
For fans of the Timberwolves, this should come as no surprise. The confidence Minnesota plays with has pushed them two games behind the Denver Nuggets for the sixth seed.
As of March 20, they were 9-1 in their last 10 games. D’Angelo Russell is Minnesota’s “x-factor”. Although his statistics don’t reflect it, he can drop 25–30 points and 10 assists in clutch games when they matter most.
Anthony Edwards is averaging 21.5 ppg per ESPN’s stats, and Kat is playing arguably the best basketball of his career since 2018.
As the current seventh seed, the Timberwolves are set to face the LA Clippers, who occupy the 8th seed. If they win, they’d cement their spot as the No. seven seed going into the playoffs. With a loss, the Timberwolves would face the loser between the No. nine and 10 seeded New Orleans and San Antonio for a chance at the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
No. 9 Seed: New Orleans Pelicans
To advance into the playoffs, the Pelicans will need to win two consecutive games in the play-in tournament as the ninth seed. They will first play against Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, and if they win, face the loser of the Minnesota Timberwolves and LA Clippers game.
Although the Spurs have had an understandably rough season, you can never count out a team led by a coach dubbed one of the 25 greatest in NBA history. Popovich steered the Spurs to the playoffs for 22 seasons in a row, winning five titles, and has become one of the greats due to his high basketball IQ, creating plays that ushered in the consistent success all coaches aspire to reach.
On the other hand, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has done a phenomenal job with the shorthanded Los Angeles team throughout the regular season. To add icing on the cake, Paul George returned after suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The same elbow that’s been giving George problems since the 2018 offseason.
The road ahead of them won’t be easy, but all the pieces are there for the Pelicans to come together and compete. Zion Williamson has started full-court workouts, CJ McCullum is having a season of career-highs and Brandon Ingram is recovering from a hamstring injury.
If the Pelicans are able to push into the postseason, it would mark the franchise’s first appearance in the playoffs in four years.
All in all, the play-in tournament will be a four-day fest filled with hungry teams competing at the highest level for their last chance to advance into the postseason. In just two days, this high-stakes spectacle will lead us to the long-awaited 75th annual NBA playoffs.
Edited by Abbigail Earl & James Sutton