Question of the day: is this the NBA playoffs? The answer has to be no. Two teams from each conference are going to be heading home over the next few days, and we won’t be calling any of those teams playoff teams. They will have missed the sixteen team bracket, and thus they will have missed the playoffs. But do they get a special little distinction in the record book? The 2021 Los Angeles Lakers qualified for the play-in tournament. Or do we just count them as one of the fourteen teams that missed out on playoff basketball, with no note of the fact that they were one of the teams that came oh so close? These are important questions that need to be answered.
And with that great lead-in out of the way, let’s get to what really matters: today’s play-in, not playoff, games. The Eastern Conference is up today. Before we get to the games, let’s quickly remind ourselves how this works.
Step 1: 7 seed hosts 8 seed. Winner takes 7 seed in playoffs
Step 2: 9 seed hosts 10 seed. Loser is eliminated
Step 3: 7/8 loser hosts 9/10 winner. Winner takes 8 seed in playoffs
Steps 1 & 2 are interchangeable (and actually happening in the opposite direction tonight), but you get the idea. The Wizards and Celtics are playing for the 7 seed, and the Hornets and Pacers are playing to stay alive for a shot at the 8 seed. Let’s take a deeper look at those games.
GAME 1: Hornets @ Pacers, 5:30 Central (TNT)
- Could have finished in 8, 9, or 10 seed heading into last day of season
- 10-18 finish to the season
- 21st in scoring efficiency
- 17th in defensive efficiency
- 23rd in net rating and point differential
- 10th in 3Ps per game, 14th in 3P%
- 1st in assist percentage
- 9th in offensive rebound percentage
- 26th in defensive rebounding percentage
- 25th in turnover percentage
- 28th in threes allowed per game, 30th in attempts allowed
The Hornets hung around the East’s top five past the halfway point of the season, but a series of injuries to their best players eventually took their toll, pushing them down to the play-in. This is not a particularly threatening team at this point with Gordon Hayward still sidelined and in need of a miracle to play tonight. Charlotte is relatively balanced, being slightly below average on both sides of the ball. They shoot a decent amount of threes, rely heavily on the pass, and do a fine job of crashing the offensive glass.
Here I’ll make a quick comment on assist percentage – it’s an indicator of offensive style rather than quality. A high assist percentage means that there isn’t a lot of isolation basketball going on – the Hornets make about two-thirds of their shots off of assists. It doesn’t necessarily make for an effective offense, as we can kind of see here with Charlotte ranking 17th in scoring efficiency. On the other side of the coin, low assist percentages don’t always amount to bad offenses; the Blazers consistently place in the top ten in offensive efficiency (2nd this year) despite sitting at the bottom of the league in assist percentage. I think the ability to depend on others for offense is probably going to help a young team like the Hornets in playoff-level basketball, but the point here is that we need to look at assists percentage in the right way. I’ve now realized that this was not a quick comment… Moving on.
The Hornets tend to struggle in three clear areas. The first is on the defensive glass. It’s worth noting that being 26th here means that they grab 1% less of the available defensive rebounds than the average team. Statistically, given the number of possessions in a game, that’s not likely to add up to much (probably about half a rebound per game). The more important idea is that they, over the full season, have been more susceptible than most to opponent offensive rebounds. That’s not something you want to carry into big moments. The second is in ball security, which is an understandable flaw for an inexperienced team. Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham have been really dang good in this area, but most of the other rotation members have struggled to hold onto the basketball. Again, this is not a problem that you want to have in this type of game, and it’s a flaw that can be exploited by the wrong match-up. The third is defending the three, where Charlotte has really struggled. They give up more three-point attempts than anyone in the league, and only the Bucks and Pelicans allow more made triples per game. This isn’t a killer defensively – the Bucks are 30th and the Heat are 27th in triples allowed yet they rank 9th and 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions – but it’s definitely not helping a team that’s not coming from a place of past success defensively like Miami and Milwaukee.
- Five Players to Watch
1. Terry Rozier
With Ball and Hayward dealing with their respective injuries, Rozier took over the mantle of team MVP, and there’s a case to be made that he would have deserved it regardless. He’s leading the team in scoring with just over 20 points per game, knocking in 39% of his threes on more than eight attempts per game, and producing roughly 4 assists and rebounds each per game. This has pretty easily been his best season as a pro.
2. LaMelo Ball
Ball is a special player. He’s the fourteenth rookie (and third teenager) to finish a season averaging at least 15 points, 5 assists, and 5 boards per game. He was a league-average shooter on decent volume. He averaged 1.6 steals per game. His rookie season only lasted 51 games, but it was a special one. If this is the only playoff-like game we get from him this year, make sure to enjoy it.
3. Devonte’ Graham
Graham saw a clear decline in production after his breakout sophomore campaign, averaging about three points and two assists less per game for 14.8 and 5.4, respectively. He’s still a dangerous high-volume shooter with playmaking ability, and part of the drop-off is due to a decrease in floor time (down five minutes per game to 30.2).
4. Miles Bridges
5. PJ Washington
For brevity’s sake, I’ll combine these two. They’re not the same player – Bridges is more pro-adjusted at this point in his career while Washington likely holds the potential to have a more all-around impact – but both will rebound and shoot relatively well. They’re also both capable of providing some significant scoring on any given night.
- Could have finished in 8, 9, or 10 seed heading into last day of season
- 5-5 over last 10, 9-11 over last 20, 15-15 over last 30, 19-21 over last 40 … the theme should be clear by now
- 14th in scoring efficiency
- 14th in defensive efficiency
- 16th in net rating (17th in point differential)
- 4th in pace
- 26th in free throw attempts per game
- 5th in assist percentage
- 26th in offensive rebounding percentage
- 30th in defensive rebounding percentage
- 7th in turnover percentage
- Allow 2nd fewest three-point attempts per game
- 5th in steals, 1st in blocks
- Allow most second chance points and paint points in the league
The Pacers have been the definition of mediocre this year, though they did make a nice move for the future by swapping Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert. That move unfortunately failed to deliver this season, but the more important thing is that LeVert is okay after his health scare. He’s now back and ready to roll. The same can’t be said of TJ Warren, and it feels like that’s the kind of endless cycle Indiana has been stuck in the last few years. They can never get healthy enough to see what exactly they have at the height of their powers. Warren played just four games this year, Myles Turner missed twenty-five, Jeremy Lamb missed time, and the Dipo/LeVert pairing combined to play just forty-four games. Even now, Warren and Turner are out, and there’s not much hope that this team can win more than a game or two.
Unlike past seasons, this is a pretty fast Pacers team. They’re going to move the ball around a lot while still maintaining solid ball security. They’re also very capable of causing chaos defensively with steals and blocks. Where they fall short is in the paint. This is a team that barely ever gets to the line, struggles to rebound on either side of the court, and gets destroyed by opposing offenses at the rim. Both Turner and Domantas Sabonis bring good size to the table, but that’s about it. With Turner out for the last twenty-plus games, things have gone south. This is a pretty small team outside of those two, and they’re going to struggle against big and physical teams. The one positive we do see inside is their scoring, largely sparked by Sabonis.
- 5 Players to Watch
1. Domantas Sabonis
Sabonis is one of the most versatile bigs in the game, and he just became one of sixteen players in league history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game over a full season. He’s a highly efficient scorer who has started to develop some semblance of a perimeter shot. He’s also as good of a passer and volume rebounder as pretty much any big in the league. It will be good to see him on this stage after an injury kept him out of the bubble last year.
2. Malcolm Brogdon (dealing with hamstring injury but close to return)
Brogdon does a little bit of everything as a combo guard. He’s leading the Pacers in scoring with 21.2 points per game. He averages almost 6 assists and over 5 boards per outing. He’s a very good shooter (39% from deep on roughly 6 average attempts). Brogdon is no All-Star; he’s just a dang good NBA player. Durability will always be a question – he played 56 games this year and missed the last ten – but he’s as solid as they come. He and Sabonis have kept things steady amid the chaos these last two years.
3. Caris LeVert
LeVert is a shifty and dangerous scorer. He’s averaging almost 21 points per game despite not being a great shooter, and he and Brogdon are the big two to watch off the dribble. LeVert is also chipping in almost five assists and rebounds each per game. The injury history is far from ideal here, but, at just 26, he should be a long-term fit if he can stay on the court. He did drop 30+ in about 13% of his games (and 25+ in roughly 33% of them), so we could see a big showing from him in this one. Four of those thirty-point games have come in the last three weeks.
4. TJ McConnell
McConnell is your prototypical backup PG, even by appearance. He’s a very good passer, averaging 6.6 assists per game, and he will help the Pacers keep the offense flowing. He’s also capable of finding his own shot, which often comes from inside the arc. He’s a very solid defender too – though he is limited there by his size (6’1″). McConnell won’t do everything out there, but he is very good at what he does do.
5. Justin Holiday
Holiday, one of three brothers in the league and one of two brothers on the Pacers, is a legitimate perimeter and midrange threat. He doesn’t do a whole lot of isolation, but that doesn’t mean he won’t score. He’s shooting about 38% from deep on over six attempts per game, and he’s making over 51% of his shots from 10-16 feet.
Keys to the Game
The Pacers play very fast. The Hornets play at a below average pace. If Indiana can control the speed and keep things fast, they might be able to pressure an inexperienced and turnover-prone Hornets team into a number of costly turnovers. Indiana has been elite at causing chaos defensively.
2. The 3-Point Line
The Hornets are an above-average shooting team with terrible perimeter defense. The Pacers are a below-average shooting team that often severely limits the opposing team’s three-point volume. If Indiana can control the three-point line (or just make it a non-factor), they’ll be in a great position.
3. The Paint
We’ve talked about Indiana’s interior troubles defensively. Charlotte, despite their lack of a true cornerstone center, has been stout there, scoring at an average clip in the paint and holding up well defensively. The Pacers’ issues don’t extend to offense – they’re pretty good at scoring at the rim – but Charlotte’s ability to win this game will likely hinge on their ability to do some damage inside. Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller will be taking center stage, and they could have some success (offensively at least) with Turner out. Bridges will also look to score inside. On the other side, watch for the Hornets to struggle to contain Sabonis. They need to do their best to keep him away from the rim.
4. Brogdon’s Health
If Brogdon doesn’t play, this is a brand new game. In a playoff atmosphere, that might be one too many hits for the Pacers to take without falling down.
I don’t think this is a great match-up for the Hornets. They’re not particularly well-suited to control the paint offensively, and they don’t have the experience edge here, especially with Hayward. I like what’s being built down in Charlotte right now, but they’ve slid to the finish line for a reason. Against a Pacers team that is really quite solid, I think they fall short. One could make the argument that the three best players in this game will be wearing the home team’s colors, and Sabonis, Brogdon, and LeVert will be too much here even with Indiana’s injury issues.
Pacers 117, Hornets 111
The Play: Pacers -3
GAME 2: Wizards @ Celtics, 8:00 Central (TNT)
- Could have finished in 8, 9, or 10 seed heading into last day of season
- 17-6 finish to the regular season
- 17th in scoring efficiency
- 20th in defensive efficiency
- 22nd in net rating
- Since April 6: 8th, 8th, 6th in the prior three
- 1st in pace
- 29th in 3P attempts per game, 23rd in 3P%
- 12th in 3P% since April 6
- 1st in free throws per game
- 30th in fouls per game (so they foul the most)
- Allow fourth fewest fast break points per game
- Allow fifth most points off turnovers per game
The Wizards are as hot as any team in the league, and that finish did more than separate them from the Bulls and Raptors. It also gave them an opportunity to rise all the way up to the 8 seed, and they took advantage by downing the Hornets on Sunday. This is a relatively well-balanced team. For much of the season, that meant they were well below average on both sides of the ball. Over the last 40 days, that has meant a top 10 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The question, of course, is this – can they maintain their torrid closing pace now that we’ve reached the end of the regular season? If yes, no one will all be all that happy to play this team. If no, then there won’t be much they can do against the Sixers or Nets if they make it past Boston or Indiana/Charlotte.
As far as play style goes, expect speed, speed, speed and some more speed for good measure. Russ Westbrook is in town, and that means it’s time to run. The other thing to expect – a whole lot of free throws. The Wizards are as bad at avoiding fouls as they are good at forcing the other team to foul them. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t much of a three-point shooting team. We all know who Russ is by now, and, outside of Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal, there just isn’t anyone here that will take more than a few threes per game.
This is a very top-heavy team. Neither Rui Hachimura (for now at least) or Davis Bertans should be a third best player. Even Beal and Westbrook don’t seem like a perfect lead duo given their respective – and very clear – flaws. The talent to be a playoff team is there without a doubt, but there’s a reason no one was really expecting them to be much more than that at the start of the season. The recent hot streak has changed perceptions to some degree, but can it change the reality of their situation?
- 5 Players to Watch
1. Bradley Beal
Beal is as effective of a high-volume scorer as there is. This was his second consecutive season averaging 30+ points per game. Only seventeen other players have two or more such seasons in NBA history. He’s not the most efficient scorer you’ll see, but he will get his buckets no matter what. Beal and Steph Curry easily led the league with 50 games of 25+ points apiece (Luka had 45 for third), and Beal played three less games than Steph.
2. Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is the box score king, and his abilities there haven’t diminished by much over the last few years. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 11.7 assists, and 11.5 rebounds per game, and he now owns four of the five triple-double average seasons in league history. He still can’t shoot, and there are valid questions to be asked about the advanced metrics that show his impact falling off a cliff. That doesn’t mean Russ isn’t still as productive on a pure counting stats basis as anyone in the league, and it’ll be exciting to see him bring that production to the play-in.
3. Rui Hachimura
Hachimura improved slightly as a shooter in his second season but otherwise posted very similar numbers across the board. He’s a fine rebounder who can score when he’s fed the ball. There’s not a whole lot else that stands out. Hachimura could be a very good starter at some point, but asking him to be the #3 option on a winning playoff team might be a bit much right now.
4. Davis Bertans
Bertans is a sharpshooter who has connected on 39.5% of his threes while taking about 7.5 per game. Those are really good numbers, and they’re enhanced by the fact that Bertans is 6’10”. He’s a dangerous weapon alongside two stars that aren’t very efficient from beyond the arc themselves, and the threat of a Bertans triple helps keep paths to the lane open a half second longer than they might otherwise be.
5. Raul Neto
Yes, we’re talking about Raul Neto here. With both Thomas Bryant and Deni Avdija down for the count, it’s probably either Neto or Robin Lopez in this five spot, and I’ll give the edge to Neto. He’s been a solid backup PG for Washington this year, connecting on 39% of his threes (on limited volume), dishing out a few assists and grabbing a few rebounds, and flashing an ability to get his own shot from within the arc.
- Jaylen Brown is out
- 2-5 in last seven without Brown
- 10th in scoring efficiency
- 13th in defensive efficiency
- 13th in net rating
- 3rd in offensive rebound percentage
- 25th in free throws per game
- 25th in free throws allowed per game
- Allow fifth fewest paint points
With Brown out, the question is not whether the Celtics can go far in the playoffs. It’s this – can they even make the playoffs? Boston never really found their groove this year despite the rise in performance from Brown, and his season-ending injury will confirm an early exit, which was already the most likely outcome. It’s been a trying year for the Celtics, and as they move into the summer, they’ll have some key questions to answer about their roster. Two young stars that have (likely) yet to peak, an oft-injured point guard, and a group of limited role players that are mostly either nearing 30 or struggling to adjust to the NBA level isn’t exactly what you would expect to see from a team that is supposedly on the rise, and yet here we are. Danny Ainge has some serious work to do.
As far as their play-in play goes, there’s not a whole lot that stands out about this team. They were simply solid on both sides of the ball. The free throw battle is something that they consistently lost, which could be a factor in a one-game scenario. On the other side of things, don’t be surprised if the Celtics control the paint. A lot of the things they do especially well involve rebounding or limiting their opponent’s paint scoring.
- 5 Players to Watch
1. Jayson Tatum
Tatum essentially plateaued in his fourth season. There’s more momentum in the right direction than the wrong one – including a three point per game increase and an extra average assist (both accompanied by a 1.5 minute increase in average playing time) – but the main point is that Tatum stayed in the “very good” range instead of taking that step to “superstar”. At just 23 years old, that’s not something to worry about. He’s still an elite scorer and shooter, a good rebounder, a fine defender, and an emerging passer, and he has time to get even better. If Boston is winning this one, it’ll be on his back.
2. Kemba Walker
The Walker era started with a lot of promise and positivity after the drama of 2019, but that hasn’t carried over to his second year. Injuries are becoming a significant issue here, and Walker played just 43 games this season. He’s still a good shooter and scorer who can make plays for others, but it’s hard to avoid the elephant in the room. After missing three or less games in six of his eight seasons in Charlotte, Walker might be breaking down.
3. Marcus Smart
Smart is one of the best and most versatile defender in the league. He’s also very injury-prone, having missed 15+ games in more than half of his seasons, including this one. He has turned himself into a very solid playmaker after years of consistent improvement, and he led Boston in assists this season. The improvement is also there to some degree with his shooting, though he’s been a little ways below average this season despite his continued high volume.
4. Evan Fournier
Fournier is a smooth scoring guard, and he’s been playing good basketball since coming over to the Celtics at the deadline. He’s always been a good shooter, but he’s shooting a fiery 46% from deep in Boston. He’ll pitch in a few rebounds and assists here and there, but the key for Fournier is his shooting and a decent ability to find looks inside the arc.
5. Tristan Thompson
There are a number of options one could go with here, but I’ll go with Thompson because of his experience. This right here is a guy that has played on the biggest stages, and the Wizards aren’t exactly running out Wes Unseld at center. Look for Thompson to be effective on the offensive glass. His role in Boston has basically been rebounding, setting screens, and shooting in the paint, so don’t expect a whole lot of variety. That doesn’t mean he can’t have a big impact here.
Keys to the Game
1. Tatum and Kemba
The Celtics aren’t winning this game without a signature performance from at least one of these two. With Brown out, the margin for error shrinks. They can’t afford to see Kemba go silent. The Wizards have been better defensively recently, but they really don’t have lockdown defenders. If Tatum and Walker can take advantage, we should have ourselves a game.
2. Smart on Russ/Beal
On the other side of the court, the Celtics will need to limit Westbrook and Beal. There’s no one way to do that, but putting the self-professed best defender in the league (there are at least six of those but we’re talking about Smart here) on one of them as often as possible seems like a good place to start. If he can’t frustrate their offensive efforts, Boston won’t be in a good spot.
3. Free Throws
The Celtics are terrible at getting to the line and also not very good at limiting their opponent’s free throw volume. That’s not a great formula against the team that gets to the line more than any other. Washington is pretty terrible at limiting their own fouls too, but the difference here is that they make up for it on offense. Expect to see Beal and Westbrook fighting their way to the line repeatedly, and it might decide the game.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in the moment when it comes to Washington without remembering that this is a team that has 1) very little depth with Bryant and Avdija out, 2) a much larger sample of poor play than great play this season, and 3) two stars that have few signature playoff moments between the two of them. If this team gets paired up with the Sixers or Nets, they should be pretty heavy underdogs in a seven-game series. With that said, they are playing determined (and really good) basketball right now, and good luck to Boston when it comes to stopping Beal and Russ in this one. This would be a great match-up with Brown. Without him, it’s hard to see the Celtics protecting the Garden.
Wizards 112, Celtics 104
The Play: Wizards +110