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Play-in tournament starts Tuesday, giving 8 teams new life

MIAMI (AP) — Getting to the play-in tournament probably wasn’t the goal of any team when training camps opened back in September.

It does, however, beat the alternative.

There are 12 teams with playoff spots right now, 10 teams whose seasons are over — and eight teams with a second chance. The play-in tournament starts Tuesday, with Atlanta going to Miami and Minnesota visiting the Los Angeles Lakers, with the winners going to the postseason.

Oklahoma City goes to New Orleans and Chicago visits Toronto on Wednesday for elimination games; loser goes home, winner moves on to face the loser of Tuesday’s games in another win-or-go-home contest.

“You have to embrace this new experience,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “To the old heads in our locker room, each of us have experienced long NBA careers and not have had this opportunity. I think it’s been great for the league. How harrowing this has been, the last six, eight weeks for 16 teams in the West and the East. It’s just been great for competition and overall. it’s been great for the league.”

The NBA added it to boost end-of-season excitement, give more teams playoff hope — and discourage tanking. Dallas still had a chance at the play-in until its 81st game of the season on Friday, when it held several rotation players out and lost. The NBA is investigating the Mavericks’ motivations there and if Dallas lost to protect its draft odds.

The Heat were the No. 1 seed in the East last season and now need the play-in just to get back to the playoffs. But they’re also playing perhaps their best basketball of the season — just like the Lakers, who went a West-best 16-7 after the All-Star break.

“We put ourselves in a position where we can move on,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “That’s all we could ask for, to put ourselves in a position to be able to move on. We had obviously a very, very slow start, starting 2-10 … to know where we are today, we can be happy about that, but not satisfied.”

No team that has used the play-in tournament — Portland in 2020 in the bubble under a slightly different format; Boston, Washington, the Lakers and Memphis in 2021; Brooklyn, Atlanta, Minnesota and New Orleans last year — to reach the actual playoffs has ever won a first-round series.

But it still provides hope, and perhaps a shot in the arm for those who survive and advance.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys love competition. And this has high stakes to it. And that’s ultimately where you find out about yourself — when there’s stakes to it, when there’s consequences to it.”

FORMAT

Even in Year 3 of this format, it still can be confusing. Here’s how it works:

— No. 7 plays No. 8. The winner is in and gets the No. 7 seed for the playoffs. The loser has a second chance.

— No. 9 plays No. 10. The loser’s season is over. The winner moves on to face the loser of the 7 vs. 8 game.

— The remaining teams (the 7-8 loser and the 9-10 winner) play at the higher seed, with the winner getting the No. 8 seed. The loser’s season ends.

— All six games either have a team qualifying for the playoffs, or getting eliminated, or both.

MATCHUPS

EASTERN CONFERENCE

NO. 8 ATLANTA (41-41) AT NO. 7 MIAMI (44-38)

Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Season series: Miami, 3-1

Previous play-in appearances: Hawks went 2-0 to become No. 8 seed in 2022; Heat are in play-in for first time.

At stake: Winner plays Boston in Game 1 on Saturday; loser plays elimination game Friday.

Outlook: All four games ended up relatively close (Heat by 8, Hawks by 8, Heat by 8, Heat by 2). … Miami’s Jimmy Butler averaged 25 points and Bam Adebayo averaged 24.5 in the season series. … Trae Young averaged 19.8 points for the Hawks against the Heat, but was held to 36% shooting and 21% from 3-point range. … Hawks aiming to become first team in the play-in era to win three games after going 2-0 last year.

X-factor: Miami’s Caleb Martin shot 64% against the Hawks, averaging 15.8 points and going 8-for-11 on 3-pointers.

NO. 10 CHICAGO (40-42) AT NO. 9 TORONTO (41-41)

Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Season series: Toronto, 2-1

Previous play-in appearances: Both teams are in play-in for first time.

At stake: Winner plays elimination game Friday; loser is eliminated.

Outlook: Home teams went 3-0 in the season series. … Zach LaVine averaged 23.5 points vs. the Raptors this season, while Fred VanVleet averaged 20 points vs. the Bulls. … Toronto never led by more than 10 points in any of the three games vs. Chicago this season.

X-factor: Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan has played at Toronto seven times since leaving the Raptors, so he’s dealt with the emotions before — though never in an elimination game in his former home building.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

NO. 8 MINNESOTA (42-40) AT NO. 7 L.A. LAKERS (43-39)

Tuesday, 10 p.m., TNT

Season series: Minnesota, 2-1

Previous play-in appearances: Timberwolves went 1-0 to become No. 7 seed in 2022; Lakers went 1-0 to become No. 7 seed in 2021.

At stake: Winner plays Memphis in Game 1 on Sunday; loser plays elimination game Friday.

Outlook: Anthony Davis played against Minnesota twice, scored exactly 38 points in both of those games — the Lakers winning one of them, the Wolves winning the other. … LeBron James averaged 23 points in two games against Minnesota, shooting only 39.5%. … Anthony Edwards had 29 points in Minnesota’s win over the Lakers in October, then was held to a combined 30 points in two March meetings between the clubs.

X-factor: The dustup involving Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson on Sunday with either empower the Timberwolves — or fracture them.

NO. 10 OKLAHOMA CITY (40-42) AT NO. 9 NEW ORLEANS (42-40)

Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Season series: New Orleans, 3-1

Previous play-in appearances: Pelicans went 2-0 to become No. 8 seed in 2022; Thunder are in play-in for first time.

At stake: Winner plays elimination game Friday; loser is eliminated.

Outlook: New Orleans’ three wins over the Thunder were by three, three and four points — but the Pelicans held leads of 21, 20 and 13 points in those games. … New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram played in just one of the four games, scoring 34 points in that outing. … Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 33.5 points against the Pelicans this season, with high games of 44 and 35.

X-factor: Thunder have nothing to lose except lottery odds. Pelicans were in this exact spot last year and know what it takes.

___

AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press






 

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