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Everything You Need To Know To Be Ready For The NBA's Play In Tournament

Welcome to the second season everybody!

After 6 months and 82 games, the dust has settled and our Play In/Playoff bracket is set. Let's have a look

The final playoff picture will be settled by Friday night, and things officially kick off tomorrow night. I think it goes without saying that the Play In idea has been an overwhelming success since it was created, and given how even all these teams are this year my guess is this year's version will be just as entertaining. 

Even though these first set of games technically aren't the playoffs, they still have that playoff intensity, especially the 9/10 games. The quality of basketball might be pretty gross depending on the matchup, but the pressure is still real. We're now at the point where everything these teams may have done in the 82 games prior no longer really matters if you can't show up this week, and who knows there's a chance we could see a Play In team end up having a fairly deep run if they're able to secure their spot in the real dance.

So with things starting up tomorrow, I can't think of a better time to run through each matchup and get you ready for what should be a wild 2 months. We'll go in order of the games

Atlanta Hawks (8) vs Miami Heat (7)

Head to head: MIA won 3-1

You could make the case that both of these teams had underachieving seasons. The Heat went from the #1 seed last year to the Play In this year, whereas the Hawks went from the 8 seed to the…..8 seed. Now there are certainly contributing factors to this such as injuries, coaching changes, guys not taking leaps etc, but the facts are the facts. I'm sure both fanbases believe this was a bit of a down year.

The beauty of this matchup is none of that matters. While H2H records this year for every team should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt given all the games players sat out, it is important to note that these two teams did play each other in early March at basically full strength. The Heat won both (117-109, 130-128) but both were obviously competitive, coming down to the 4th quarter.

When talking about this matchup, you can't ignore how effective the Heat have been in terms of limiting Trae Young. That's going to be the biggest factor for both sides tomorrow night. In a game like this, a guy can get hot and the next thing you know your season is on life support. 

In 4 games against MIA this year, Young is averaging just 19.8/3.3/9.8 on 35/20% shooting. Essentially, he's been in jail in every single matchup. I will say, Trae did have a monster Play In run last year, including 38/3/9 on 52/36% in their win over the Cavs to secure their playoff spot. He has proven he can show up in these games. 

If you look at how each team has been playing over the last month, the Hawks enter this series with the 4th best offense, 22nd best defense, and 16th best net rating. For the Heat over this same timeframe, it's 9th, 24th, 19th.

I find that pretty interesting considering defense is what the Heat are supposed to hang their hat on. That top 10 offense is certainly better than they've been all season, and as you can see it's not like the Hawks are stopping anyone on that end either, so something's gotta give there. Add in Playoff Jimmy Butler, and you can understand why many think the Heat have this game in the bag.

The question will be, which version of these teams show up? If the plan is to get into a track meet, I'm not sure that favors the Heat. Their shooting is a little too streaky for that. In terms of their styles, the Heat are pretty elite when it comes to stopping P&R. They rank in the 75th percentile defending the P&R ball handler, and obviously against a team with Trae Young that's fairly important. Surprisingly the Hawks have struggled in P&R, ranking in only the 55th percentile offensively this season. That's a pretty big dropoff from their 75th percentile ranking last year.

Both teams are around the same in terms of isolation offense, and really this might all come down to shooting. Neither team can really shoot. The Hawks ranked 28th in 3PA and 21st in 3P%, whereas the Heat were 10th in 3PA but just 27th in 3P%. 

It should help that the Heat defense can be very switchable, especially with Bam, but on paper I don't think you're crazy suggesting that the Hawks have more talent. We're about to see if that actually matters.

Minnesota Timberwolves (8) vs Los Angeles Lakers (7)

Head to head: MIN won 2-1

The Wolves are currently in the process of falling apart. They lost Naz Reid for the year with wrist surgery, Rudy Gobert is punching teammates, and they also lost Jaden McDaniels to a broken hand because he punched a wall in frustration. It's hard to be pumped at the moment as a Wolves fan, and who could blame them?

Obviously, there's some juice in this matchup considering it was the Lakers turned around their season after trading for a bunch of former Wolves. Between DLo, Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, etc, the Wolves potentially getting bounced by guys that were just on their team last year would be pretty brutal. We've seen the Wolves respond in the Play In before, and I do think that while you have KAT/Anthony Edwards available you always have a chance, I'm just not sure they can overcome their matchup issues here.

After losing their best on ball defender in McDaniels, I'm just not sure the Wolves have the defenders available to deal with a healthy Lakers roster. Who is guarding LeBron/AD? The Lakers have been the best team in the West since the ASB in terms of record, and now they're healthy and motivated. 

You almost have to treat the Lakers like an entirely different team compared to what we saw for the first few months. None of that matters. They added actual NBA quality talent to their rotation and this is a team with the 4th best defense since the ASB to pair with their top 6 net rating. They're good.

It also should be mentioned that no team in the NBA gets to the line more than the Lakers. It's extremely suspect, but suprises nobody. This matters of course because the Timberwolves are 29th in the NBA in opponents FTA. They foul the shit out of everyone they play. So just think about how this will most likely play out. The Wolves don't have their best wing defender, we have no idea if they'll have Gobert for rim protection, and they're facing a team that lives at the line and gets the best whistle in the NBA. 

Not only that, but the Wolves are also going to be going up against the fact that Adam Silver definitely wants LeBron and the Lakers in the actual playoffs. 

Best case? KAT and Edwards go nuts offensively, the Lakers 14th ranked offense stalls just enough and perhaps the "nobody believes in us" card works. Of all the Play In matchups though, this one might be the most non-competitive game of all and that's too bad. 

Chicago Bulls (10) vs Toronto Raptors (9)

Head to head: TOR won 2-1

I have no idea what to make of the Bulls. On paper, they have tons of talent. This was a team that was atop the East not too long ago, but once Lonzo Ball got hurt everything sort of cratered. It's not often you see a roster that has 3 All Star level players, all of which played at least 74 games, only to finish 40-42 and be one loss away from their season being over.

The problem? Despite that talent, the Bulls finished the year with the 24th ranked offense. Again, that's weird considering LaVine/DeRozan/Vucevic basically missed zero time this year, but their offense never really found it's stride. That's a shame too because defensively the Bulls were a top 5 team on the year. They have legit on ball defenders and can make life tough for you, they just can't score on the other end.

The Bulls feel more to me like a team that may have underachieved, but given the talent available it won't take much to get hot and make some noise. They have gone 12-8 over the last month which is tied for the 6th best record in the NBA, and they certainly have been better than TOR over this span (10-9), so maybe this will be more about who is playing well at the right time. 

When it comes to TOR, they rely heavily on turning over their opponent. No team in the league is better at causing turnovers and then turning those mistakes into points. The bad news for the Raptors is the Bulls are 8th in the NBA in TOs per game (13.4). They take care of the ball at a high level. In terms of halfcourt offense, the Raptors rank 14th in the league. Decent, but not great. With them it's a similar issue as many of these Play In teams, they can't really shoot. 

28th in 3P%, 28th in 3PM, it's all about transition points when it comes to TOR. They are big, physical, and long as hell. If they can find ways to make the Bulls turn it over, they have a shot. 

The Bulls are 30th in 3PA, which isn't exactly new. It's not part of their offense. Instead, DeRozan just kills you with the midrange. But guys like LaVine and Coby White can get hot from three and make an impact, Vucevic can knock down some clean looks as a pick & pop guy, so they definitely have more shooting options that's for sure.

They also have maybe the most successful Play In guy in the league in Pat Bev. That matters. 

I also don't think you can rule out all the drama with Nick Nurse. He's probably not coming back, and perhaps the team is just ready for this season to be over so they can smash the rebuild button. The quit factor might be pretty high if the Bulls somehow get off to an early lead. We see that all the time.

Oklahoma City Thunder (10) vs New Orleans Pelicans (9)

Head to head: NO won 3-1

The Thunder are basically playing with house money as far as I'm concerned. They weren't supposed to be this good and yet here they are. SGA is having a 1st Team All NBA season, their rookies look great, Josh Giddey took a leap, Lu Dort is a defensive menace and even if they lose this game it's mostly whatever. These are valuable reps that can only help the development of this young roster.

On paper, this shouldn't really be close, the Pelicans have loads of talent even without Zion playing. They've also been playing pretty well over the last month (12-8), but the same is true for OKC (12-9). Whenever you get into one of these win or go home games, literally anything can happen. How your season has gone doesn't really matter, what matters is who is better over the course of 48 minutes. 

I think it's a toss up who has the best player in this matchup given the leap SGA made this year. Brandon Ingram is also on a tear, but he's a much streakier shooter. SGA gets into the paint/FT line like few guards can, and I'm not sure the Pelicans have the perimeter defenders to stop him. At least the Thunder will be able to throw some size and Lu Dort at Ingram in an attempt to make his life tough.

It's just hard to know what version of the Pelicans we're going to get. They were so good to start the year and then went into a coma for like two months. Injuries certainly didn't help, and they may have a higher ceiling if they play to their potential, but in a weird way you almost feel like OKC has been the more consistent team this season. I know that sounds crazy, but they just never truly went away. When everyone thought they'd drop, they kept on winning.

I think that matters in a game like this. It's not a series, you just have to be better on one night. You're telling me a team that beat BOS/LAC (3x), DAL, MEM, PHI, DEN, CLE, LAL, GS, NOP, and PHX doesn't have what it takes to win a single game? Of course they do! Their run may end if they have to play the Lakers, but they should absolutely be given a chance in this 9/10 game. Maybe it'll be called an upset if they pull it out, but it shouldn't be if you've been paying attention to OKC all year.

With just one more sleep until the fun starts, I cannot wait. The Play In is the perfect appetizer for the real dance, and given who we have this year, I expect a high level of drama. Someone is going to lose who shouldn't, there will be a guy who goes nuts puts the team on his back etc. 

My guess is we see LAL/MIA/CHI/NO move on, but I'd love to be wrong.