Play-in tournament gives Hornets last-ditch shot at NBA playoffs

A late-season slump dropped Charlotte to the No. 10 seed

P.J. Washington and the Hornets will play at Indiana on Tuesday in the first game of the Eastern Conference's playoff play-in tournament. (Doug McSchooler / AP Photo)

For the first time since 2016, the Charlotte Hornets have made the NBA postseason.

Sort of.

The Hornets play at Indiana on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m., two days after the end of the NBA regular season. Technically, that makes it the postseason.

Charlotte still has some work to do before the Hornets officially made the NBA Playoffs, however. Welcome to 2021.

“This is new,” coach James Borrego said. “I’ve never been in sort of an NCAA-type situation in the NBA.”

For the second year in a row, the NBA expanded its postseason to include a play-in tournament. The top six seeds in each conference are in, without any further pre-postseason play. The bottom two seeds, however, need to defend their spots.

The No. 7 and No. 8 seeds — who, in previous years, would be preparing to face the top two seeds in the conference — instead face each other, with the winner becoming the true seventh seed.

In the East, that game matches the No. 7 Celtics and No. 8 Wizards on Tuesday night. In the West, the game, which will be played on Wednesday, should be a ratings bonanza for the NBA. Two of the biggest names in the league will be featured with LeBron James’ Lakers looking to defend its seventh seed against scoring champion Steph Curry and the Warriors.

James has criticized the play-in format, and it’s understandable why a Laker would take issue. Los Angeles finished tied with the Mavericks and Trail Blazers, who received the No. 6 and No. 5 seeds, respectively, based on tiebreakers. Despite having the same record, the Lakers need to win one of two games to officially make the field.

That brings up the other oddity of the play-in.

The game doesn’t have quite the same urgency as a March Madness tournament game or an NBA game seven. Instead of “win or go home,” the 7-8 game is more “win or go elsewhere.”

While the winner heads to the top 16, the loser of the 7-8 game plays for the eighth seed against the winner of the other first-round play-in game.

The No. 9 and No. 10 seeds in each conference who, in previous seasons, would be home digging up lucky charms for the draft lottery, instead have a second chance to enter the playoff field. It begins with a game against each other. The winner then advances to face the loser of the 7-8 game for the No. 8 seed in the conference.

In the West, that game features No. 9 Memphis, which lost to Portland in last season’s play-in, and No. 10 San Antonio, which benefits from a tweak to the play-in format this year.

Last season, the play-in was an option if teams finished within four games of the final playoff spot. That resulted in the Eastern Conference not having one since the top eight put enough distance between themselves and the ninth seed.

This year, the play-in tournament is taking place regardless of how far behind the ninth and 10th seeds are. That helped the Spurs, who were six games out of the eighth spot, continue their season.

In the East, it gave the Hornets a safety net after a late-season fade. For much of the season, Charlotte was not only in the playoff field but competing for a top-six spot and avoiding the play-in altogether.

After reaching their high point of three games over .500 and the fifth seed “if the season ended today,” the Hornets went 6-15 the rest of the way. They closed the regular season with a five-game losing streak and dropped nine of the last 12, including six of seven.

Charlotte was hurt by the loss of Rookie of the Year candidate LaMelo Ball, who missed 21 straight games with a broken wrist late in the year before returning for the stretch run. The team fared well in Ball’s absence, however, going 10-11. The Hornets were No. 8, tied with then-No. 7 seed Boston, when Ball went down, but Charlotte was still in the eighth spot, although 2½ games back, when he returned.

The Hornets finished a game behind No. 8 Washington and No. 9 Indiana, but the Hornets had the toughest road of the four play-in teams to the Eastern Conference bracket. Charlotte needed to win back-to-back road games to earn a spot opposite the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers.

The Hornets had plenty of opportunities to improve their playoff fate. In the 3-7 season-ending stretch with Ball back on the floor, the Hornets dropped home games to the Bulls and Pelicans, who each finished 10 games below .500 and went 1-5 in Charlotte. In their regular-season finale, the Hornets lost by five to the Wizards, missing the chance to tie Washington for the 9-10 spot.

The Eastern Conference play-in games conclude on Thursday, while the Western Conference field will be set on Friday night.