The NBA postseason tips off Tuesday, and the race for the title is wide open with star-studded teams like the Los Angeles Lakers having already been eliminated and big-name injuries making it unclear who this year’s favorites might be.
Here’s everything you need to know.
The top teams in each of the Eastern and Western Conferences are ranked from 1-10 based off of their regular season records.
It used to be the top eight teams from each conference were guaranteed to play a playoff series, but last year the NBA shook the old format up by introducing a play-in tournament which has teams 7-10 complete in a series of single-elimination games for the final two playoff spots in their respective conferences.
For the 7th and 8th ranked teams it’s “win and you’re in,” with the loser of that game playing the winner of a game between teams ranked 9 and 10.
Although it can sound a little complicated, the league’s new format gives more teams a shot at making it into the playoffs while also giving fans exciting elimination games to kick off the tournament.
The first play-in games will be Tuesday and Wednesday with Friday being the last opportunity for four teams to make it in.
The Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics won’t know their first-round opponents until the conclusion of Friday’s games.
Still confused? Here’s a brief overview of who plays who.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will play the Brooklyn Nets in New York City in the first game of the tournament on Tuesday night, with the winner moving on to face the Boston Celtics in the first round.
Cleveland has struggled with injuries this season, with Ricky Rubio tearing his ACL before being traded to the Indiana Pacers and Collin Sexton looking to be out for the rest of the season regardless of how deep the Cavs go in. All-Star Jarrett Allen has also been sidelined for the past month with a finger fracture with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff unsure of when the star center could return.
They’ll face a formidable Brooklyn Nets team that already beat them less than a week ago and features superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The Nets have been hamstrung most of the season with star-player Kyrie Irving only recently allowed to play games at home after refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Irving was arguably the highest-profile athlete to be affected by vaccine mandates.
If the Nets are able to make it through the week’s play-in games, there’s optimism that guard Ben Simmons, who was traded from Philadelphia but has been out injured, could also make an appearance in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The loser of Tuesday’s game will face the winner of Wednesday’s do-or-die game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
Atlanta will hope to repeat last season’s surprising playoff run where they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. They were later defeated by the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Wednesday’s matchup will feature two of the league’s young stars, with Atlanta’s 23-year-old Trae Young becoming one of only two players to lead the league in total points and total assists.
Charlotte will hope second-year star LaMelo Ball will play a key role in the matchup, with this year having become the fourth-youngest player to make the All-Star game in history, behind Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Magic Johnson.
The number-one seeded Miami Heat will play the winner of Friday’s game.
The Los Angeles Clippers look like a team that could make a run in this year’s NBA playoffs after having lost star player Paul George for most of the season with a torn ligament in his shooting elbow. But George is back and will face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m. ET.
George hasn’t been the only Clippers star to miss playing time due to injury.
The team will hope that two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will be healthy enough to play for the first time since tearing his ACL in June.
Although it doesn’t appear he will feature in this week’s play-in matchup, there’s hope that if the team makes a run he could be back. And with both George and Leonard healthy the Clippers could make other teams nervous.
The winner between LA and Minnesota will move on to play the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round this weekend.
The West’s single elimination game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the San Antonio Spurs tips off at 9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday. The Spurs have missed the playoffs the past two seasons after appearing every year between 1998 and 2019. The team won five NBA championships during that stretch.
The winner will face the loser of Tuesday night’s LA vs Minnesota matchup.
Of all the teams already guaranteed a playoff berth, one of the hottest in the West must be the Devin Booker and Chris Paul-led Phoenix Suns who posted the league’s best regular season record of 64-18.
Paul, who turns 37 next month, will hope to return to the NBA Finals for only the second time in his career. Largely regarded as one of the greatest point guards in the game, last year’s Finals was Paul’s first shot at a championship before being defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks. Paul missed 15 games at the end of the regular season with a fractured thumb.
It won’t be easy for Phoenix to return to the NBA Finals even if Paul comes back healthy. The Western Conference features a slew of tough opponents looking for their own shot at the title.
The Dallas Mavericks will lean on their star player Luka Dončić, who left Sunday’s game early with a left calf strain, as they face the Utah Jazz. While the Golden State Warriors, who return to the playoffs for the first time since losing to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, will take on Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets.
Last season’s MVP, Jokić looks to be the front-runner for the award again this season after becoming the first player in NBA history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a season.
Another team to keep an eye on are the Memphis Grizzlies and their electric young star Ja Morant. The Grizzlies will face the winner of LA and Minnesota.
The NBA’s Eastern Conference looks wide open, with all of the top-10 teams finishing the season within 10 games of each other.
The Miami Heat locked up the number one seed with Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia hot on their heels with each finishing the regular season with a record of 51-31.
Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid is another name regularly brought up with Antetokounmpo and Jokić as a possible MVP candidate. Born in Cameroon, Embiid recently became the first international player to clinch an NBA scoring title with an average of 30.6 points per game this season.
Philadelphia will face the Toronto Raptors and possible rookie of the year Scottie Barnes in the first round of the Playoffs. The Sixers will be at a bit of a disadvantage during their road games since Matisse Thybulle does not meet Canada’s vaccination requirements and won’t be allowed to play.