Ranking the Potential Best Play-In Tournament Matchups

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 17: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks plays defense against Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers on January 17, 2020 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA season is usually winding down by this point. A couple of teams might be fighting for position, but most playoff spots are settled. Outside of a few matchups, the regular season loses its intrigue. But this year is different. Teams all over the standings are fighting for position. Every night there are games with big implications. The Play-In Tournament has added a new level of competition to the league, and it hasn’t even started yet. When it does start, it promises some great matchups. So here are potentially the best play-in tournament matchups.

Establishing Ground Rules

April 25, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates with forward Draymond Green (23) against the Sacramento Kings during the third quarter at Chase Center
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

First off, what constitutes a potential play-in matchup? I’ll look at any teams that have a realistic chance at making the play-in. From the East, this is the: Celtics, Heat, Hornets, Pacers, Wizards, and Raptors. From the West: Mavericks, Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs, and Warriors. Some other teams may end up in the play-in, but these are the most likely.

The Pelicans are one team that many people were looking forward to seeing in the Play-in, but they’re sliding in the standings. They now sit 4.5 games behind the Warriors and Spurs for the 10 seed. They could play a part in a few entertaining matchups (how fun would Ja versus Zion be!), but it’s a long shot that they will make it. For this reason, I won’t be including them.

Secondly, How will the matchups be ranked? The games will solely be ranked on the intrigue of the matchup. I won’t consider the likelihood of the two teams actually facing off for the rankings. For example, a matchup won’t drop in the rankings because the two teams involved likely wouldn’t meet in the first play-in game.

There are a few factors in determining how good a matchup can be. Those are players involved, narratives, and history. Having big names in the game is important. Seeing two players duel in a winner takes all game is the best-case scenario, and that’s reflected in the rankings. Any teams that could have bad blood or know each other very well also constitute a good matchup. Finally, recent history in the regular season or playoffs is important.

Now that some rules have been established, here are some of the best play-in tournament matchups.

Honorable Mentions


Jan 25, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) shoots the ball in between Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon (7) and guard Jeremy Lamb (26) in the fourth quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

These are two teams that have really underachieved this year. Before the season started, the Raptors had a 90% chance of making the playoffs and the Pacers 68%, according to 538’s RAPTOR tool. Those numbers have dropped to 11% and 46%, respectively. Both would be hoping to win and qualify for the playoffs to salvage a bad season.

The Raptors have an extremely tough road just to qualify for the play-in. They have the third toughest schedule remaining, according to Tankathon. But if they do, a matchup with Indiana is most likely. What makes this matchup most interesting is the coaching battle. Nate Bjorkgren is in his first season as the Pacers head coach. He’s won both a G-League and NBA title under Nick Nurse, current Raptors coach.

Seeing what these two coaches do when given just one game to beat each other would be very interesting. The final wrinkle: both teams are trying to keep playoff streaks of 5+ years alive.


Apr 11, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward DeMar DeRozan (10) reacts after hitting the game-winning shot against the Dallas Mavericks during the fourth quarter at American Airlines Center.
 Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

These two teams have been mainstays in the playoffs throughout the 2000s. Now they’re back on the younger side of the league, hoping to start a new dynasty. With their young duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs had their sights higher than the play-in this year. Thus far, they’ve had a tumultuous season, heavily affected by the League’s Health and Safety Protocols.

The Spurs, on the other hand, have surprised many with their success this year. Not many would’ve predicted them to be in the play-in mix. DeRozan is having possibly the best season of his career, and their other young players are stepping up. The last time the Mavericks and Spurs played, DeRozan hit the game-winning shot with 1 second left, which adds a new angle to this matchup.

Another good coaching battle between two of the longest-tenured in the league. Seeing Popovich and a heavy underdog Spurs team beat Luka, and the Mavs would be an interesting upset. Especially after Luka’s recent comments surrounding the play-in.

Unfortunately, this matchup also falls on the unlikely side of things. The Mavericks are pushing up the standings and might avoid the play-in tournament. Even if they are in the play-in, it would likely take until the second round for them to meet the Spurs.


Feb 28, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) talks with Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) during the second quarter at TD Garden.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards are on an 8 game winning streak right now. Because of that, they’ve ascended to play-in tournament contention. The most interesting matchup for them is the Celtics. The most obvious angle here is Tatum and Beal. They’re great friends, but now they’d face each other with playoff basketball on the line.

Both teams have stars galore, with Brown and Westbrook beside Tatum and Beal. They’ve both underachieved this season, but the Celtics have been especially below par. Missing the playoffs would be a huge disappointment for them and might spell the end for coach Brad Stevens.


Feb 9, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) drives to the basket as San Antonio Spurs forward Rudy Gay (22) looks on in the third quarter at AT&T Center.
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

As of now, this would be the 9 versus 10 matchup in the west. What a matchup it would be. They have a bitter playoff history, each defeating the other on various occasions. Most recently, the Warriors beat down on the Spurs multiple years during the Kevin Durant days.

Seeing these two duke it out for a chance at the playoffs would be primetime basketball�a throwback to their recent dynasties. Of course, the biggest draw in the game would be Curry. As you’ll see later in the rankings, he’s probably going to be the biggest draw of the whole tournament. Curry leading his Warriors past his old rivals would be a fitting start to a playoff run.

5. Grizzlies-Mavs

Apr 14, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) shoots in the second half as Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (77) defends at FedExForum. Dallas won 114-113.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Magic. The only way to describe Luka’s game-winner against the Grizzlies.

That shot surely left a bad taste in the Grizzlies’ mouth. We’ll see these two teams play once more before the play-in tournament, a game that could further elevate a rivalry between these two. Both teams will be contending in the west for a long time behind their young duos. A play-in matchup could cement a long-term rivalry here.

The return of Jaren Jackson Jr. has immediately elevated this Grizzlies team. He seemingly hasn’t missed a beat since his injury in the bubble. The Grizzlies will take it slow as they ramp him up, but once the play-in rolls around, this team could give anybody serious trouble.

The Mavericks struggled early in the season, but are finding their footing of late. Since the all-star break, they’re 15-10 and boast a top-5 offense. This is much closer to the Mavs we expected coming into this year. They look better than a play-in team but their early-season record may result in some play-in games for them.

Everybody knows how important playoff battle scars are for young teams. Memphis missed out on the playoffs last year, so making it this year would be helpful for them going forward. The Mavs lost in the first round last year and wouldn’t be the favorite in the first round this year. The playoff experience is invaluable, though.

Two of the most exciting players in the league, playing in a winner takes all game. That makes up one of the best play-in tournament matchups.

4. Heat-Hornets

Feb 1, 2021; Miami, Florida, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward (20) defends Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during the second half at American Airlines Arena.
Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

The East is shaking out right now, so it looks like either the Celtics or Heat could be the 7th seed. That’s the two conference finalists last year, dropping into the play-in tournament. Extremely unexpected.

Their likely opponent in the first game is the Hornets. That’s the Hornets with LaMelo Ball back, and possibly Gordon Hayward as well. Both of these potential matchups are in the rankings. The reason for the Heat-Hornets game being lower is that less narrative exists between these two teams.

The Heat have been up and down this year, mostly due to injuries and losing players to Health and Safety Protocols. But come playoff time, I don’t think anybody will want to play them. Last season they entered the playoffs as a 5 seed and made a run all the way to the finals. I’m not saying they’ll do that again but never count them out.

The Hornets have been one of the most exciting teams to watch this year, with a roster filled by young, electrifying players such as LaMelo, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, and PJ Washington. They play a fast-paced game and are 5th in the league in assists per game. Any Hornets game is sure to be a fun one.

The worry for the Hornets is experience. Most of their roster has little to no playoff experience because they are so young. Gordon Hayward and Rozier will have to be leaders for the team in a potential play in-game. But compared to a battle-tested team like the Heat, the Hornets are just playoff babies.

Pair the Hornets with a great team like the Heat and you get one of the best play-in tournament matchups.

3. Celtics-Hornets

Apr 25, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (8) drives into Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) in the second half at Spectrum Center. The Charlotte Hornets won 125-104.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

This is the more interesting of the potential Hornets matchups for a couple of reasons.

1. Celtics Mark II

It kind of feels like the Hornets are trying to build the Frankenceltics. It started in the 2019-20 offseason. They weren’t able to resign Kemba Walker, so they executed a sign and trade with the Celtics and brought in Terry Rozier. Not super suspicious right? Well, one year later, they sign Gordon Hayward in free agency from the Celtics. Even still, it could just be a coincidence. But then, at the trade deadline this year, they traded for Brad Wanamaker, another former Celtic.

So, they’ve basically assembled a mini Celtics team down in Charlotte. This adds a little spice to any matchup between the two teams, especially considering Kemba would also be playing his former team. Definitely a lot of potential for extra intensity in this matchup.

2. Hornets Beatdown

We got a Celtics and Hornets matchup just a few days ago, and it was easy to forget the Celtics were involved. The Hornets scored 125 points on 50/48/90 shooting splits as a team. The Celtics never showed any fight in the game and got embarrassed as a result.

The teams will play one more time before the end of the season, and the Celtics will be looking for revenge. There’s a good chance for a little bad blood heading into the play-in if these two teams matchup.

This game has a chance to be pivotal in the big picture. If the Hornets can win, their young team gets some playoff experience early. That sends the Celtics down to the second round of the play-in. After that, the Celtics might get knocked out before even making the playoffs. If the Celtics win, that could get them back on track and kick off a postseason run. This all makes for the 3rd best play-in tournament matchup.

2. Warriors-Blazers

Jan 1, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles the ball against Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in the third quarter at the Chase Center.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, Warriors time. Spoiler Alert: Golden State is in both of the top two spots on this list. There’s one reason for that. Stephen Curry. He has been on an all-time tear lately and has become the greatest show in the NBA if he wasn’t already.

Who better for him to face than Damian Lillard? The two best long-range bombers in the league. A guy who did this:

Against a guy who did this:

I’m getting excited just thinking about these two in a play-in game.

The Warriors are in a weird spot right now, with the injury to Klay Thompson and some of the high draft picks they have. They’re stuck between the future and the present. But it’s easy to forget about that when you watch Curry ball out nightly. We’ve all seen what he’s been doing in April, so imagine that in the play-in tournament.

The Blazers have had another season plagued by injury, the latest to Damian Lillard himself. As a result of these injuries, they’ve underperformed and found themselves in a play-in tournament position. The team will lament this, but as a neutral fan, I’m very excited. If they can stay healthy for the rest of the season and get rhythm heading into the play-in, it would be surprising if they didn’t make the playoffs.

These teams have met twice in the playoffs recently. The Warriors swept the Blazers in the 2019 conference finals and beat them 4-1 in the 2016 second round. A play-in tournament matchup could be an opportunity for the Blazers to exact their revenge by sending the Warriors to the offseason. Or the Warriors could continue their dominance.

The bottom line is we could have Steph and Dame facing each other in the play-in. That is guaranteed one of the best play-in tournament matchups.

1. Warriors-Mavericks

Feb 6, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) in action during the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Golden State Warriors at the American Airlines Center.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It was a toss-up between this game and number two. I went back and forth multiple times. The draw is the same: Steph and Dame or Steph and Luka. The Warriors will be the underdogs in both games, trying to spoil the other teams’ playoff hopes. So I decided to go back and look at the games they’ve played so far this season. I figured that might shed some light on which matchup could be more interesting. Wrong. They’re both insane.

The Warriors have played both teams in the back-to-back format that was added this season. Against Portland, they got blown out in the first game. They blew out Dallas in the first game. The second game is where we got the action. Curry had 62 against Portland and 57 against Dallas. Damian Lillard had 32, which was not nearly enough to match Steph, and the Warriors won. Luka showed more resistance; he had 42 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists in arguably the best game of his career so far.

The Warriors have already played the Blazers a third time and lost a close one. They will play Dallas a third time on Tuesday. If you’re reading this after that game, you may have a lot more insight into this debate, and I envy you.

Against both teams, the Warriors had one of the best games of the season. So there’s still very little difference between the two matchups. So how did I come to my decision? I used one minor detail that makes sense and another reason that has little to no relevance, but I think plays a role.

Luka impressed me against the Warriors. Curry was having one of those nights, but Luka didn’t back down. He matched him shot for shot and ended up getting Dallas the win. He fought more valiantly than Lillard did against the Curry onslaught. That bodes well for a potential play-in matchup.

What I’m saying is I think a Doncic-Curry duel is very, veryvery, slightly more likely than a Lillard-Curry duel. I’m also factoring in that Lillard has slowed down lately and missed 3 games recently with a hamstring injury.

Now the reason that is most likely irrelevant. I’ve mentioned that playoff history also factors into how interesting a matchup is. Well, to find the most recent playoff series between Dallas and Golden State, we have to go back to 2007. Some of you might know where this is going now, but if you don’t bear with me.

Going into the 2007 playoffs, the Mavericks were considered the title favorites. They had the 1 seed in the west and were led by that year’s MVP, Dirk Nowitzki. In the first round, they played the 8 seed “We Believe” Warriors, who then beat them in 6 games. To this day, that is the only time an 8 seed has upset a 1 seed in the modern playoff format.

Of course, nobody is really left from that series on either side, not even the coaches. But this gives some context for this potential matchup. There is some bad blood here on an organizational level, and the Warriors have a chance to upset the Mavericks again and possibly send them home. That is what pushes this matchup ever so slightly above a matchup between Golden State and Portland.

These two are close, but Golden State against Dallas stands alone as number one out of the potential best play-in tournament matchups.

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