The end of the NBA regular season is quickly approaching, with just a few games left to shake out the finals standings in both conferences. However, this is no ordinary year of NBA basketball, and for four teams in both conferences, the fight for a playoff spot will continue after the conclusion of the regular season with the inaugural play-in tournament. So far, the largest beneficiary of this new and untested structure appears to be the Washington Wizards, who were 17-32 and had the fifth best lottery odds just a little more than a month ago. Since April 8, the Wizards have won 15 of their last 22 games and have firmly positioned themselves as the 10th seed in the Eastern conference, the lowest seed allowed in the play-in tournament.
They have accomplished the absurd feat of climbing out of the gutters of the NBA on the backs of some absurd stretches of basketball from their two stars, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook in particular has been playing at another level over the past month. He has averaged a monstrous triple-double stat line of 22.6 points, 13.9 assists and 13.9 rebounds since April 8. The former NBA MVP also put together a box score that had to be seen to be believed with 14 points, 21 rebounds and 24 assists in a 154-141 win against the Indiana Pacers on May 3. More impressively than any individual game, Westbrook surpassed Oscar Robertson as the NBA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles with 182 in the Wizards May 10 game against the Atlanta Hawks.
1️⃣8️⃣2️⃣ TRIPLE-DOUBLES 😤👏
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) May 11, 2021
It has certainly been a roller coaster season for Wizards fans and players alike, but the excitement is just beginning. With a three game lead over the 11th place Chicago Bulls and just three games remaining in the regular season, it would take a meltdown of cataclysmic proportions for the Wizards to not find themselves in the first round of the play-in tournament on May 18. Here is a graphic released by the NBA that illustrates the structure of the tournament:
As the image shows, the tournament consists of the two highest seeds (seventh and eighth) playing one game against each other for the seventh seed, and the two lowest seeds (ninth and tenth) playing a game against each other for the right to play the loser of the higher seeded game for the eighth and final playoff spot. This set-up affords some privilege to the two teams entering the tournament with higher seeds that would normally beget them a playoff spot, but gives the ninth and tenth seeds (who would normally see their season end with the conclusion of the regular season) a fighting chance to make the playoffs. As things stand now, the Wizards will play the Pacers for the rights to play the winner of the Charlotte Hornets – Boston Celtics game. The caveat of course, is that the Wizards go home if they lose, and all their late season efforts will have been in vain. To put a more positive spin on the situation, they are still capable of locking up the third seed if they win the rest of their regular season games and get some charitable losses from the 33 win Pacers and Hornets. The Wizards own a tiebreaker over the Pacers with a 3-0 lead in the season series, but would lose a tiebreaker to the Hornets as they have already lost two of their three matchups.
There have been some big names such as LeBron James and Luka Doncic who have criticized the play-in tournament, claiming that it potentially reduces the effort of an entire season to one or two games, but this undersells the increased late-season competition that the play-in tournament has facilitated. Fifth and sixth seeds now find themselves in more meaningful late season games as they try to avoid the uncertainty of the play-in, where in the past they might have been okay with dropping a spot or two and resting some key players. Teams like the Wizards who would have had to chalk their season in the past kept fighting because they knew they had a chance to make the play-in. Regardless of the opinions of players or fans, the play-in will be happening this season and potentially in the future depending on how successful it is. Here’s to hoping the Wizards have what it takes to sneak into the postseason, and maybe even make things interesting for a one or two seed, as they ride out their hot streak.
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball Reference and ESPN