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Welcome, one and all, to the show. For the first time in NBA history, a planned and prepared for play-in tournament is happening where the 7th-10th seeds line up for a shot to participate in the 2021 NBA playoffs. Can the plummeting Celtics right the ship and cruise into 7th? Will the Wizards win with Westbrook? Do the 9th seeded Pacers or the 10th seeded Hornets really look to force their way into the 8th seed? We’ll find that out later, but for now: Let’s look at the first round.
Before we do that, an obligatory play-in explanation is in order. We’d never feel like we have to explain the standard format, but we’re all new to this one. The idea is to give more players and teams a chance at the playoffs, but in order to do so they need to earn in. The 7th and 8th seeds face off for the 7th spot, and the loser plays the winners of the 9th/10th seed game to earn spot no.8. Every series is a single game, for all the marbles. With so much on the line, it makes you wonder if marbles were the right analogy.
(8) Washington Wizards @ (7) Boston Celtics
Tuesday, May 18th: 9:00PM
This frankly wouldn’t be a contest if not for the current state of Boston’s talent-stocked larder. The Celtics are quite apparently the better of the two sides, and it’s not particularly close when the teams are healthy. But the fact is, the Boston Celtics aren’t healthy. They’ve been struggling and streaky for the better part of the season, and have danced up and down the standings at their leisure. The loss of F Jaylen Brown makes for tough sledding, as his scoring, playmaking, and efficient defense in transition helped make Boston’s recent turnover issues a thing of the past. Whoever plays for Boston on Tuesday will have their hands full, and they go up against the surging Washington Wizards. We’ve all heard of Westbrook’s latest accolades, as he now leads the NBA all-time in triple-doubles, but what we don’t hear about is the fact that it’s doing something it didn’t always do. Those stats are translating into W’s, and Washington has the power to beat anyone in the NBA on any given day. A 7-game series is going to be tough for them if they survive, but Washington won’t die easily.
Boston needs to do what it hasn’t done for the better part of the season, and force it’s bench to step up. Jayson Tatum has been playing some of the best basketball of his life, but if every time he sits the Celtics slide down by a 10-point margin, he’s going to be on the court a lot. Rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith have excelled recently, and they duo’s shooting prowess will have to be leaned on. Nesmith has draw comparisons to teammate Marcus Smart for his recent defensive tenacity, and if he can step up during the starting unit’s down time, the C’s can be expected to lock up the 7th seed fast. The Celtics have their hands full in the paint, with a lack of reasonable big men on the roster. Tristan Thompson isn’t the answer in a lot of scenarios, and the health of emerging force Robert Williams is always in question. Boston will need adequate play under the basket and above-average scoring from the bench in order to sink Washington.
The Wizards, however, might not need to do much in order to find themselves at an previously improbable 7th seed appearance. If they can do exactly what they’ve done for this entire run, they’ll be home free. A dominant paint performance much like they’ve seen in this second half of the season will be enough to either force Boston to pull off a miracle or make them reevaluate themselves for the 10th time this season ahead of the 2nd round of play-in games. Washington finished the season 17-6 because they resorted to old-school basketball, leaning on their guards to facilitate as well as score, which spread the floor and let them find an open man. They have a lot of reasonable advantages, but will need to stick to those basics in order to book their ticket. One thing to watch will be how Bradley Beal plays coming off his hamstring injury. He did play well on Sunday, but was clearly hurting and slow to start.
Boston has enough firepower on their roster to outlast Washington in this one, barring yet another an injury setback. This might be one of the most closely-matched series in the playoffs, and Washington will be expected to polish off whoever they play in round 2 of the tournament.
(10) Charlotte Hornets @ (9) Indiana Pacers
Tuesday, May 18th: 6:30PM
A look at the bottom teams on each side of the play-in tournament will yield poor results. There’s a reason why these teams look so consistently downtrodden, and why in almost any other year they wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all. We’re still here though, ready to watch one of them attempt to make magic happen, and they could do it. The Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers are both top-5 in the NBA in assists per game this season, which means that strong fundamental basketball will be on full display. This will be a dog fight between two scrappy teams trying to prove they belong in 2021’s playoff bracket.
Charlotte have the makings of a future contender, but they’re not there yet. With the likely unanimous Rookie Of The Year on the roster, Charlotte will benefit from their inexperience as much as the Pacers do. Great players have short memories, and Charlotte’s ability to break out of slumps as a team will treat them well. The Hornets fight for every possession, with their offensive rebounds sitting at a whopping 10.6 per game (6th). In a one-game series, the Hornets unwillingness to go away, always forcing close matchups, means they’re a tough out. If they can crash the boards on offense and keep the Pacers out of their paint on defense, they’ll be on the front foot and able to control the game comfortably. Assuming the Pacers give them the chance.
The Pacers face a similar issue to the Celtics in that they can’t seem to stay healthy. Losing Myles Turner was rough, but Indiana isn’t getting much production from the players battling through injuries actually on the court. They do, however, have an abundance of talent, and should still be considered a capable threat at all positions. The one man they will need to lean on in order to ensure their ability to advance is Domantas Sabonis, who has been a dominant force in the paint throughout the 2020-2021 season. If Sabonis can execute at his current standard, and get into the paint on both ends of the court without fouling out, he will make life extremely difficult for the Hornets.
Likely a tooth-and-nail fight, the Charlotte Hornets are just too much for the Pacers to handle. If Gordon Hayward is able to return in time, this is a slam dunk, but Charlotte will manage against a banged-up Indiana unit for now. It remains to be seen if they can outlast either the Celtics or Wizards in round 2, but that’s neither here nor there until we get there. Expect to see the Hornets again.