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Everything You Need To Know To Be Ready For What Should Be An Epic Play In Tournament

Now that the dust has settled after a wild Sunday of basketball, we can now take a step back and see our official 2024 playoff bracket

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Before we get to the good stuff, we of course have our Play In Tournament, and while this may be recency bias, I feel like if you look at the matchups in both conferences this is easily the most talent this tournament has ever had. While the final teams aren't all that surprising since most of them were in the Play In range all year, now that we know who is facing each other you'd be crazy to not be hyped about these matchups.

I know there had been some pushback over the Play In during previous seasons, but I don't really understand why. Not only has it made the end of the NBA season more exciting, it also gives us a nice appetizer ahead of the main course. Then you add in some of the biggest names in the league, and it's even better!

As the saying goes, if you don't want to end up in the Play In, all you have to do is win more games. It's that simple. If I'm not mistaken we've never seen a team from the 9/10 games break through and make the playoffs, but if there's ever a season for that to finally happen, it's certainly 2024. The beauty (and the risk) of these games is it's no longer about who is the better team or who had the better season. It all boils down to who can be better for those 48 minutes. One cold shooting night and your season could be over. One hot shooting night and it could spark what ends up being a deep playoff run. 

At this point, you don't really care what seed you end up in, you just want to make the dance. So with the Play In tipping off tomorrow, let's get you ready for the action.

Philadelphia 76ers (7 seed) vs Miami Heat (8 seed)

H2H record: Series tied 2-2

If you want juice, look no further than our first matchup. The first thing we should talk about is even though these teams may have split their season series, it's important to remember that Joel Embiid only played in 1 of these games, which was a 109-104 win on 4/4 where Embiid had 29 points in his 33 minutes (but did shoot 11-25). 

On the other side, the Heat only had Jimmy Butler for 1 of these games as well, which was that 4/4 game.

The point is, this is one of those matchups where I don't think the regular season basketball between the two really tells us anything. This is obviously the most rested and the healthiest Embiid has ever been heading into this part of the season, and the Sixers close the season winning 8 straight. They took advantage of their light schedule and built that momentum that you want to see as a fan.

The Heat have now initiated their transition into the Zombie Heat, who have certainly grown accustomed to being in this exact position and continuously find a way to come through. You add in the Jimmy Butler vs his old team juice to the equation, and there's no doubt this should rightfully be one of the most hyped up matchups of the Play In.

If you're a Sixers fan looking for something positive to hang your hat on, you don't really have to dive too deep. This season, the Sixers are 31-8 with Joel Embiid in the lineup, which is a 65 win pace. When you look at how they've faired in games that Maxey AND Embiid have both played, that record is 29-7, which is a 66 win pace. So, it's fair to suggest that when they've had their best players, the Sixers have won at a pace that rivals any other team in the league. 

At home, the Sixers are 19-5 when Embiid plays, and 17-5 when both Maxey and Embiid play. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's also something that shouldn't be considered a lock, and here's why.

The Heat are one of those teams where much like how we ignore everything that happened with the Sixers without Embiid, you essentially have to ignore everything the Heat do from October until April. The April Heat are not the same as the regular season Heat. And despite their offensive struggles, the Heat did go 24-17 on the road this season, which was good for the 2nd most road wins in the East. They did win in PHI earlier this year (no Embiid), and while they don't exactly have the size to handle Embiid, it's not like they haven't taken down giants before.

One thing I'm interested to see in this matchup is how the new look Sixers can handle the defensive pressure that MIA will put on you. What's different about this version is should the Heat decide to go to their zone, well now the Sixers are much more equipped with shooters. Buddy Hield is shooting 43% on C&S 3PA as a Sixer, Maxey at 44%, Batum at 40%, Lowry at 40% etc. Hell even Tobias Harris is shooting 36%. The key to really making the Heat ineffective is taking away their zone, and to do that you need to make your open looks.

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What'll also be interesting is to see how the Embiid/Maxey two man game looks against a Heat defense that ranks in the 79th percentile defending the P&R ball handler. If there's one potential weakness in that defense it's probably their point of attack and their guards being able to hold their own, so how they handle Maxey coming downhill will be huge. The Heat rank in just the 10th percentile guarding the P&R big, which tells you that this could be the game Embiid feasts. 

The Heat want to muck the game up and make you beat them in clutch situations, a place where they thrive. The Sixers have the health and the talent to prevent it from even getting to that point, but that's what makes this matchup so fun. On paper it should be a Sixers blowout, but that's never really how these things tend to go.

Chicago Bulls (9 seed) vs Atlanta Hawks (10 seed)

H2H record: CHI won 2-1

If you watched the Bulls against the Knicks yesterday, it was a little confusing why a team that was already locked into their seed went so hard, playing all their guys even through OT. To me, the Bulls are one of the most confusing teams in the entire conference, because you see the talent on that roster and then you see that they are 39-43 and none of it makes sense. 

DeRozan, Vuc, Caruso, Coby White, there's legit talent there. It's certainly enough to carry you in a single game, and as we saw last season while being in this spot, it's also the type of talent that can also break your heart in devastating fashion. Remember, they were 3-4 minutes away from knocking out the Heat in the Play In, but their offense ultimately fell apart. 

For the Hawks, they're another team that's hard to figure out. One game they look like the team that made the ECF, the next they are the team that's giving up 157 points to the Pacers. Now with Trae Young back but Jalen Johnson out, it's hard to predict what version of this roster we'll get. They certainly aren't new to the Play In with this now being their 3rd straight season, and their lone Play In win did come when they were the 9th seed back in 2022.

What you're hoping for as a Hawks fan is now that Trae Young is back, the Hawks offense and shooting will be enough to carry them through. With Young this year, the Hawks did have a 119.5 ORTG, which is legit. He's a player that has shown the ability to show up in these big moments, and that's paired with a guy in Dejounte Murray who is one of the best clutch players in the league. The thought behind the Hawks chances is getting a night where they make 14-16 3PM and the Bulls offense which is largely built around the midrange can't keep up.

If you're a Bulls fan you would welcome a clutch time game, seeing as how the Bulls have been one of the best clutch time teams all season. We just saw what they were able to do in that spot against the Knicks, and that's a team MUCH better defensively than ATL.

Ultimately, this matchup is a battle of styles. Neither team is all that great defensively, and we're about to see if someone can survive swapping 2s for 3s. If the Hawks end up playing a lick of defense, I could understand liking their chances.

What makes the matchup interesting is you imagine Caruso gets the Trae assignment, which certainly helps. Forcing the "others" on ATL to consistently make their open looks is really the only chance the Bulls have, and they'll of course need DeRozan to carry. 

You could make the case that the loser of this game should bite the bullet and smash the rebuild button. The Hawks maybe split up their backcourt, the Bulls maybe fire their coach and start over, that's what's on the line here. The odds of one of these teams getting out of the Play In and into the 8 seed is pretty low, but I suppose you should never say never.

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New Orleans Pelicans (7 seed) vs Los Angeles Lakers (8 seed)

H2H record: Lakers won 3-1

Well Pelicans, you fucked around and now you get to find out. NO certainly had their chances to avoid the Play In, but a 5-5 stretch over their last 10 games while everyone else around them went 7-3 is how you find yourself in this position. The 4 straight losses at home to BOS/PHX/ORL/SA certainly stings, as does yesterday's blowout to the Lakers. A team that looked like they were ready to finally take that next step is now in a position where it's not crazy to suggest they might miss the playoffs altogether.

In terms of storylines, this matchup has it all. Zion vs LeBron, AD vs his old team, Ingram vs his old team, it has the firepower you're looking for in a spot like this. Given that this is the healthiest season we've ever had from Zion, it's entirely possible that he explodes and the "others" on NO do enough to get them into the dance. There's really just one problem though.

I'm just not sure the Pelicans defense is going to be able to do enough, especially if AD is good to go. In their 3 losses this season they allowed 133, 139, and 124 points. Since the ASB, the Lakers have the 4th best offense in the NBA (117.3) and are 17-9. They've handled their business and have been one of the best teams since the break. All year the Pelicans defense has been pretty damn good, but yet when it comes to this matchup it seems like the Lakers size gets them whatever they want.

You then have to consider the LeBron factor. Do you feel great knowing you have to go up against LeBron and the league in a single elimination setting? I'm not sure why you would. Does it seem so far fetched that we get another situation where the Lakers take 50 FTA and they advance to play the Nuggets in RD1? You don't think Adam Silver wants those ratings? 

And while neither team takes a ton of 3PA, the outside shooting could very well be the determining factor. In one corner you have the Pelicans who don't shoot a lot (32.6), but when they do they hit them at a top 4 clip (38.3%). The Lakers are pretty similar in volume (31.4) and percentage (37.7%). Since the ASB, these two teams have been #2 (NO) and #3 (LAL) in 3P%. You usually think of both of these teams as groups with size who are aggressive and attack the basket, but it's actually the 3pt shooting that has helped shape how both teams look since the break (16-11 vs 17-9). 

The concerning part for NO would be that even if you somehow outshoot the Lakers like we saw on Sunday (15 vs 11 3PM), their defense still didn't have too many answers for the Lakers starters. Herb Jones can only do so much as an All NBA defender, giving up 55/37% splits where every Laker seemed to be able to get what they want is not a recipe for success. 

If you remember the Lakers run in 2020, the foundation of it came on the defensive end. They seem locked in on that end, and the Pelicans were just 21-19 at home this season, which isn't all that great. In fact, it's the fewest win total of any top 9 seed in the West. 

Sacramento Kings (9 seed) vs Golden State Warriors (10 seed)

H2H record: Series tied 2-2

These poor Kings. That's all I can think of when I see this matchup. Last year you finally have the season of your life and break through into the playoffs, only to meet GS in Rd1. Now, while dealing with brutal injuries to key rotation players and finishing the season 4-6 over their last 10, they limp into the Play In only to face….GS.

That's just some shit luck.

As a team that is just 2-5 over their last 7, I wouldn't exactly say the vibes are great for the Kings at the moment, and given that this feels like the last hoorah for this GS group, this does feel like the 9/10 matchup that could see the 10 seed come out on top. Now, the spinzone of course is that 3 of the 4 meetings between these two were as close as you can get

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Game 1: 122-114 (GS win)

Game 2: 102-101 (GS win)

Game 3: 124-123 (SAC win)

Game 4: 134-133 (SAC win)

but the last time these two teams played was 1/25. Both sides look MUCH different this time around, and their arrows are certainly pointed in different directions. Who knows, anything can happen while playing in your own building, and it's possible the Kings offense go nuts and they survive. But this is not the same Warriors team we saw be unable to win on the road last year. They're 25-16 on the road this season, which is tied for the 3rd most road wins in the East. They're 8-2 over their last 10, and as a team with Steph Curry we know that the Warriors are never dead and buried until they are actually dead and buried. 

Plus, you don't think the league would love a potential LeBron/Steph game if that were to happen? It stinks for the Kings, but given their injuries and inconsistent play, it does feel like the Warriors are poised to put them out of their misery and let them begin to focus on next season. 

If there was one team who you think could have a Heat-like run out of the Play In, wouldn't it be GS? We've never seen a 10 seed with that much talent before, and let's say they somehow make it out, is it crazy to pick them over the inexperience of OKC?

If they lose this game, that's probably it for this group. I can't imagine Klay turning down his last big contract to stay in GS, and someone out there with money (ORL) will probably pay him. The deeper they are able to go the more nervous the entire conference will get, because this is as proven a playoff team as you'll find in the entire league. They know what it takes to get it done. They've been in (and lost) the Play In before so the pressure shouldn't get to them. It just feels like they are the sleeping giant that nobody wants to see starting this weekend, but I would guess it takes a miracle by the Kings to knock them out given how shitty they've been playing.  

So if I had to make a choice, I'd probably roll with:

Sixers/Heat out of the East

Lakers/Warriors out of the West

Both would give us some incredible first round matchups, which probably means we won't get it. But when you look everything, it feels like that's the most logical result.