The NBA has had eight teams from each conference playoff system since 1984, but due to the pandemic that changed last season, they introduced the ‘play-in tournament’, mirroring American college basketball’s NCAA March Madness format.
For the last four decades, the NBA playoffs have been a linear system of matching seeds where the team with the best record plays the worst record, second plays seventh, third hosts sixth and fourth host fifth in seven-game series.
But, the new play-in tournament offers the ninth and tenth team in each conference a chance to steal a spot.
The play-in games see the ninth and tenth face-off, while the seventh and eighth seeds face off in a one-game match up. The winner of the seventh vs eighth game takes the seventh seed in the final tournament, while the loser gets one more chance as they play the winner of the other matchup.
The system creates a new round of games and allows the NBA to do what it wants commercially, extend the playoffs and get more air time.
The most intriguing of these matchups is the LA Lakers taking on the Golden State Warriors in the early hours of Thursday morning. The winner of that game then has to travel to Phoenix, while the loser could face Utah, the number one seed.
Both Utah and Phoenix will be cursing their luck should they end up hosting what is now a fully fit Lakers team, providing LeBron James overcomes the scary moment when he left Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans a limp.
In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers knew they were in the playoffs after they secured a win over Orlando Magic in the early hours of Saturday morning, while the second seed Nets will curse that four-game losing streak at the start of the month.
The Nets have won five in a row since, but the 76ers’ season series win (2-1) proved to be the difference between the two Eastern favourites.
The real surprise in the East has been the re-emergence of the New York Knicks. The Knicks finished the 2020 season with 21 wins, had stripped their team and hoped to land a high first-round pick, and spend some big money to attract free agency stars.
It didn't play out that way as the Knicks ended up with the eighth pick, and they failed to entice any of last season’s big stars to Madison Square Garden.
Despite the disappointing offseason head coach Tom Thibodeau has taken the Knicks from a punchline to the darlings of Manhattan once again.
Thibodeau has been around the league since 1989 and has been a head coach of three other teams and all showed defensive improvement. This season the Knicks have gone from 18th ranked defence to first.
But this is far from a complete Knicks team, and despite securing the fourth seed and home-court advantage with a tight win over Boston on Sunday, they know there is still a way to go.
Julius Randle, drafted by LA Lakers in 2014, spent four seasons with them before a season in New Orleans. Since moving to New York, the power forward has increased his points per game, assists and defensive rebounds to become a leader on the team.
Just behind Randle is RJ Barrett, the 2019 draftee, who has become a crucial piece in the new Knicks line-up.
Outside of those two, the Knicks have a team of regular and reliable starters and bench players who have assisted in building the first Knicks playoff team since 2012.
What’s more important is the team’s appearance in the playoffs and transformation from the laughing stock of New York sport to a team that suddenly seems appealing to free agents.
For the first time this century, the New York Knicks look like an attractive destination for free-agent players. The notoriously fickle fans are onside, and they have a coach who is building a winning system.
It won’t be this season, but with Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Chris Paul among the players available in the offseason and over $70 million in salary cap space, the Knicks could be ready to give the fans their first NBA Championship since 1973.