NBA playoffs 2024: Biggest questions surrounding the play-in tournament

by 24USATVApril 18, 2024, 11 a.m. 22

After the Western Conference took center stage Tuesday night, it's the Eastern Conference's turn in the 2024 NBA play-in tournament.

A year after emerging from the play-in to reach the NBA Finals, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are back, with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers standing in their way. The winner will advance to face the New York Knicks in the first round, while the loser will face the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-Chicago Bulls game in an elimination game Friday.

Our NBA experts break down those two matchups and take a look ahead to Friday's Western Conference elimination game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings.

MORE: All you need to know ahead of the playoffs

Can Jimmy Butler drag this Heat team out of the play-in for another deep run?

Chris Herring: Can he? Sure. Will he? I don't think so this time. The Sixers matchup is already a huge challenge, given how well Embiid and Philadelphia are playing. That's without even mentioning how banged up the Heat are, with Terry Rozier and Duncan Robinson having missed the past several games for Miami (Rozier has been ruled out for Wednesday's game). If the Heat do manage to snag the No. 8 spot, the uphill battle to take out the Boston Celtics looks a lot steeper than it was last season.

Jamal Collier: I'll never bet against Butler channeling his inner Michael Jordan come playoff time, but it does seem even more unlikely this time around. Miami had a few chances to win big regular-season games to get out of the play-in near the end of the season and lost just about all those games. To make a deep playoff run, the Heat almost certainly need to grab the No. 7 seed instead of falling to eighth, which would set them on a collision course with Boston right away.

Tim MacMahon: Absolutely he can. It would be foolish to rule out the possibility, especially if the Heat beat the 76ers to claim the seventh seed, putting Miami on the opposite side of the bracket from Boston. The Heat are a more talented team than a year ago, with Rozier, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and a healthy Tyler Herro getting the minutes that belonged to Gabe Vincent and Max Strus. But there's a big difference between possible and probable. Miami isn't a good bet to get out of the first round.

Andrew Lopez: If he does, it might be his most impressive "Playoff Jimmy" feat yet. The Heat have struggled to find their footing offensively (25th in scoring and 21st in offensive rating) while the team dealt with multiple injuries and lineup fluctuation. They used 35 starting lineups, had only two players with more than 70 games played and had just two five-man lineups with more than 80 minutes played together the entire season. Granted, the team was last in scoring a season ago and 25th in offensive rating before making it to the Finals, so to do it again it will need to rely on Playoff Jimmy and its fifth-ranked defense.

Tim Bontemps: Miami will win Friday and get out of the play-in. But it won't put up much of a fight against Boston. This Heat team is not the same as last season's, and this Boston team is not last year's Bucks (or Celtics, for that matter). Famous last words here, I realize, given the Heat's history. But, despite their rich recent history of success, they are the lower seed in the first round for the fourth time in five years, and I suspect this will be a lot more like the first-round sweep in 2021 than last year's magical run.

What kind of threat do the Sixers with a healthy Joel Embiid pose to the Knicks or Celtics?

Bontemps: With a healthy Joel Embiid, Philadelphia is the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. When he played this season, the 76ers went 31-8, compared with going 16-27 when he didn't. The former is the pace of a 65-win team; the latter is the pace of a 30-win squad. This is why the biggest question mark in the East playoffs is whether Embiid can stay on the court, because if he can, the 76ers can (finally) make it to the East finals.

Collier: A pretty significant one. After years of underachieving in the playoffs, the Sixers find themselves in an ideal spot to play spoiler. Philly is playing as well as anybody heading into the playoffs, but as a lower seed entering through the play-in tournament, the pressure is off. A healthy Embiid has the potential to be the best player in either of those series.

MacMahon: Philadelphia might pose a formidable challenge, but the Celtics won't fear the Sixers. Embiid has met Boston in the playoffs three times and been bounced on each occasion. The Sixers are 3-13 in the playoff games Embiid has played against the Celtics. His numbers in those games (24.4 PPG, 43.1% FG, 11.3 RPG) have been subpar by Embiid's superstar standards, in part due to Al Horford's defensive presence. And this is Boston's best team in this era thanks to the offseason additions of Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday.

Herring: With Embiid playing the way he has, he is arguably the biggest threat to come out of the East after the Celtics themselves. I think his conditioning will be worth watching, particularly as the playoffs call for starters to play extended minutes. But no team has been better than the Sixers lately, and I think they'll have a chance in any series they play, assuming they make it out of the play-in.

Lopez: A pretty big threat to the Knicks and a large but slightly lesser one to the Celtics. As MacMahon pointed out, the Celtics have done pretty well against Embiid in the playoffs during his career. Although the one game Embiid played against the Knicks this season is one Philadelphia fans probably want to forget, a healthy Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combo could be a little different this time around. With the Bucks' status up in the air right now because of Giannis Antetokounmpo's calf injury, the Celtics, Knicks and a healthy Sixers might be the top three teams in the East right now.

Which team in the 9/10 game (Bulls or Hawks) has a better chance of winning against the 76ers/Heat loser?

MacMahon: I'll go with Chicago because the Bulls are a threat if the game is close down the stretch. Led by one of the league's most effective closing duos in DeMar DeRozan and Coby White, Chicago ranked second in the league in clutch net rating (plus-23.5 points per 100 possessions). The Hawks, by contrast, ranked 26th with a minus-12.8 clutch net rating.

Lopez: All signs point to the Bulls because of how they have played in the final few months of the season, but the great equalizer in a one-game scenario could be 3-point shooting, and the Hawks have the advantage there. Atlanta finished sixth in the league in 3-pointers while the Bulls were 27th. If Atlanta makes it out of Chicago and gets hot, the Hawks could pull off the major upset.

Herring: I'm not sure there's much difference here, with both clubs missing key guys. But I'll take the Bulls, who were impressive in their season finale at Madison Square Garden, even with nothing to truly play for.

Bontemps: I'll say Atlanta, simply because the Hawks will throw up a ton of 3s, and it only takes getting hot in one game to determine how this will go. Chicago, on the other hand, could have the edge in a close game, but it is far less likely to win the game on the math, given the Bulls don't shoot a ton of 3s and give up the most attempts of any team in the league.

Collier: Chicago. After a disastrous 5-14 start, the Bulls have been quietly competent for a while now, finishing 34-29 (.539 winning percentage) over the final five months despite their injuries. But Sunday's season finale against the Knicks serves as an example: Chicago is pesky enough to keep up with anybody, but its roster is thin and is flawed enough to lose to anybody.

The Hawks finished 10 games back of the Heat but are still in the play-in. Should the NBA adjust its play-in qualification standards?

Lopez: In the bubble in 2020, there was a certain threshold teams had to hit to make the play-in tournament. A ninth-place team had to finish within four games of the eighth-place team to trigger the play-in game, which happened in the West but not in the East. Even if it were something like within seven games of the eighth seed, something might need to be added. Although it might drop only one game out of the four, it would still make for entertaining games down the stretch.

MacMahon: No. The play-in has been a major boon to the NBA business. It doesn't need to potentially dump games -- and eliminate drama -- to protect the precious playoff chances of a team that finished seventh or eighth in the conference. Those teams have plenty of opportunity to avoid putting themselves in a situation where getting upset at home by a far inferior team can end their season.

Herring: Yes. Although two games is certainly more cushion than a single-game elimination, I don't think losing twice, including once to a team much further back in the standings, at the end of a long campaign should be a death knell for a club that was considerably better during the regular season.

Collier: Not yet. The East was particularly bad this season, so it's worth keeping an eye on for future seasons. A big part of the drama of the play-in involves the teams fighting to get to No. 6 to avoid being in seventh or eighth in the final days of the regular season, and I'm not sure adding qualifications is worth jeopardizing that.

Bontemps: In theory, it's a good idea to have some sort of limitations here on whether teams can get into the play-in or not. But rather than focusing on whether a team is too far back, to me the benefit is just as much for the top two seeds in each conference getting a more beat-up opponent due to the extra game (or two) being played. If anything, removing the ninth- or 10th-place team (or both) is giving an advantage to the lower-seeded teams.

Who do you have winning Friday's West elimination game, and what chance do you give them against the Thunder in the first round?

Collier: I'm taking Sacramento. That Zion Williamson injury sets the Pelicans back, plus the Kings deserve credit for how impressive they looked against the Golden State Warriors. The young Kings have playoff experience in a first-round matchup with OKC, but I wouldn't give them much of a shot at pulling off an upset over the Thunder.

Lopez: I was all prepared to go with New Orleans, but everything hinges on what happens with Williamson's MRI results Wednesday morning. New Orleans has won all four regular-season games against Sacramento and a quarterfinal game in the in-season tournament. Because of scheduling changes, the last time a team went 6-0 before the playoffs against an opponent was the 1994 Denver Nuggets against the Minnesota Timberwolves. If New Orleans wants a chance at the playoffs, it will have to repeat that feat. Any other outcome against the Thunder for New Orleans will also depend on Williamson.

Bontemps: Sacramento. Zion walking off the court the way he did Tuesday night doesn't give me much confidence in him playing Friday. And, if he doesn't, the Kings are clear favorites to return to the playoffs for a second straight season.

MacMahon: That depends on Williamson's MRI results, but I'm not holding my breath for news good enough for him to be on the floor Friday night. If he's not on the floor, the Kings are the easy pick. And I don't like their odds against Oklahoma City, especially considering that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 38.5 points per game against the Kings this season.

Herring: Give me the Kings. Zion might end up missing in action, and it might be asking too much of Brandon Ingram, who's still working his way back into a rhythm offensively, to shoulder the load. CJ McCollum, who shot just 4-for-15 Tuesday, will need a big showing to win. Sacramento should be far more equipped to score.


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