What to know about the NBA play-in tournament and how it pertains to the Celtics

If the Celtics finish the regular season in seventh, then lose twice, their season is over.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens speaks to his players in a game against the San Antonio Spurs. Elise Amendola/AP Photo

As the NBA regular season winds down, and the Celtics continue to sputter to the finish line, it appears more and more likely they’ll be destined for the play-in tournament.

Much like the First Four in March Madness, the NBA play-in tournament is designed to provide compelling matchups featuring teams that weren’t quite good enough to make the initial field but weren’t quite bad enough to be out of the playoffs entirely. As UCLA showed this NCAA Tournament, when it went from the First Four to the Final Four, a deep run isn’t out of the question. Of course this is the NBA, and it’s often more difficult for lower-seeded teams to make some noise.


Participating in the play-in tournament would be far from an ideal scenario for the Celtics, especially because a win would likely result in a matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, or Brooklyn Nets in the first round.

The Celtics are currently 35-32, as of Saturday, and sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference – one full game behind the sixth-place Miami Heat. They finish the regular season with two pivotal matchups with the Heat and games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and New York Knicks before finding out their fate.

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If they beat the Heat twice, they’re suddenly looking at the six-seed, and potentially even the five or four if they keep winning. If they lose twice, they’re almost certainly guaranteed to end up in the play-in, which will take place from May 18-21.

The seventh-place team faces the eighth-place team and the ninth-place team faces the 10th-place team to start the action. The winner of the seventh vs. eighth-place game officially becomes the seven-seed in the playoffs, and the loser battles the winner of the ninth-place team vs. the 10th-place team to determine who officially earns the 8-seed.

If the Celtics finish in seventh and win, nothing changes. If they end the regular season in seventh and lose twice, they’re done. Losing their opening play-in game, winning the next, and facing the 76ers might actually be the best outcome at that point, but of course it won’t affect the way they approach the situation.


It’s the second year of the play-in tournament and the first in this format. Last year, in the bubble in Orlando, the Portland Trailblazers beat the Memphis Grizzlies to officially become the 8-seed in the Western Conference, and the NBA decided to take it one step further in 2021 with a four-team tournament in both the East and West.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has voiced his displeasure with the new setup.

“Whoever came up with that s*** needs to be fired,” James told reporters.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has mixed opinions.

“I think that there are some good things about the play-in tournament,” Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher & Rich.” “I prefer the older way, but this is just what we are dealt with and we have to make the most of it.”

The NBA playoffs will begin May 22 after the play-in tournament concludes.

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