NBA

NBA play-in preview: Can LeBron, Trae Young and SGA lead their teams to the playoffs?

By Sports Desk April 10, 2023

The NBA regular season has come to a close, which means the postseason is on the horizon to excite fans with its unpredictability and drama.

First, though, the play-in format returns for its third season and promises to once again add all sorts of further intrigue to the playoff picture.

The mini tournament takes place over April 11-14, with the teams that finished seventh and eighth playing one another to determine the seventh playoff seed from their respective conference, while the loser of that game gets a chance to secure the eighth seed when they host the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th seeds.

Therefore, the teams that finish seventh or eighth only need to win one game to advance to the playoffs, while those in ninth and 10th must win two.

Whoever clinches the seventh seed in the East will face the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, while the eighth seed will take on the Milwaukee Bucks. In the West, the seventh seed will go up against the Memphis Grizzlies, and the eighth seed will be paired with the Denver Nuggets.

Stats Perform previews the eight teams looking to secure their place in the 2023 NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

Tuesday, April 11 – Miami Heat (7th) vs Atlanta Hawks (8th) 

One of these teams has made the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the last three seasons, although that trend appears unlikely to continue this year.

After starting the season 2-5, the Heat soon recovered some sort of form without threatening to repeat the performances that saw them clinch the top seed in the East the previous year. They at least strung together a solid run over December and January, going 19-11, to boost their playoff hopes.

The Heat will be favourites in this matchup, having gone 4-1 in April and 3-1 against the Hawks this season, including winning back-to-back games in Miami in early March.

The trio of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro will be key, with all three scoring over 20 points per game in the regular season.

Opponents Atlanta went 7-3 to start the season, but their form dipped towards the end of 2022, before picking up again in January.

Trae Young, the star of their 2021 run, will be hoping to lead his team back to the playoffs, having averaged 26.2 points and 10.2 assists in the regular season, and the Heat's ability to stop him could be the key in this one.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 12 – Toronto Raptors (9th) vs Chicago Bulls (10th)

The Raptors have done well to reach this stage after a poor first half to the campaign, starting 16-23, but an improvement in 2023 saw them end level with the Hawks with an even .500 record.

Pascal Siakam averaged 24.2 points from his 71 games in the regular season, while Fred VanVleet (19.3) will also be required to lend a hand.

Chicago, who ended with a 40-42 record, will look to the pairing of Zach LaVine (24.8) and DeMar DeRozan (24.5) for inspiration after a promising end to the regular season on an 11-6 run.

The Raptors were 2-1 against the Bulls this season, including winning their most recent meeting in Toronto in late February on the back of a fourth-quarter fightback.

This promises to be another intriguing encounter.

Western Conference:

Tuesday, April 11 – Los Angeles Lakers (7th) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (8th)

This has been a fascinating season for the Lakers, who looked down and out but recovered to such an extent they ended up disappointed they had to settle for a play-in spot.

LeBron James and co. started 0-5 and then 2-10 as the word "crisis" was tossed about by all and sundry.

However, a subsequent run of 8-2 propelled them into a season few could have imagined in early November, while they also finished the year strongly on a 9-2 run.

James (28.9 points) and Anthony Davis (25.9) have each had injury issues, playing just 55 and 56 games respectively, but they have crucially found form and fitness at this crucial stage in the season.

 

The Timberwolves also have talent but come into this with a bit of a cloud over them after the fracas between big-trade flop Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson in their final game against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Minnesota started 2-0 against the Lakers this season, but Davis had 38 points and 17 rebounds in a big win when the teams met less than two weeks ago.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 12 – New Orleans Pelicans (9th) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (10th)

The biggest story around this one centres on who will not be there, as Zion Williamson continues to sit on the sideline with a hamstring injury.

The Pelicans' star man averaged 26.0 points this season but played only 29 games and none since January 2.

Updates from New Orleans have remained vague, although Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has spoken of a "best possible outcome" that would "maybe" see Williamson in practice around the first round. Again, "if everything lined up perfectly".

That means Brandon Ingram will be required to carry the scoring burden for now, a task he warmed up for in fine style with a 42-point return against the Timberwolves on Sunday.

The Thunder will look to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to lead them into the postseason, with the 24-year-old averaging 31.4 points this year, the fourth-most in the league.

New Orleans were 3-1 against OKC this season, but the Thunder won their last game in March with Gilgeous-Alexander scoring 35 – albeit the Pelicans were without Ingram as well as Williamson.

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    LeBron James has warned the Los Angeles Lakers must play "mistake-free basketball" if they are to overcome the Denver Nuggets.

    The Lakers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 110-106 on Tuesday, meaning they progress to the first round of the playoffs.

    A series against the reigning NBA champions awaits, starting on Saturday.

    And James, who finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, knows the Lakers will have to deliver a near-perfect performance.

    "It's the defending champion," James said.

    "They know what it takes. They know how to win. They've been extremely dominant on their home floor over the last few years.

    "They've got an MVP on their team. They've got a closer on their team. They've got high-level players, high-IQ players, and they've got a hell of a coach.

    "So, we have to play mistake-free basketball. Make it tough on them. They're going to try to make it tough on us, obviously.

    "But if we can play as great of a game as we can play, and they're going to play as great of a game as they play, it's going come down to one or two possessions. We'll see who executes then."

    It was put to Lakers coach Darvin Ham that there had been reports the Lakers might throw their game against the Pelicans in order to go up against either the Sacramento Kings or the Golden State Warriors in the other play-in game.

    The Kings ultimately won, and will now face the Pelicans, with the prize a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Western Conference's No.1 seed.

    "There was a report of what?" an incredulous Ham said. "Insane asylum sources say?"

    The Lakers reached the Conference Finals last year, and Anthony Davis is confident Los Angeles are coming into their best form at the opportune moment.

    "I think we're clicking at the right time," Davis said.

    "Guys are playing well. Guys are very confident. Guys are feeling good. And we're going to need it, especially against Denver."

  • 'We knew what was on the line' – Kings had to overcome Warriors 'hurdle', says Fox 'We knew what was on the line' – Kings had to overcome Warriors 'hurdle', says Fox

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    The Kings came out on top 118-94 on Tuesday, progressing to a meeting with the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday as Sacramento aim to make the playoffs.

    Sacramento, who were led by Keegan Murray's 32 points, lost to the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs last year.

    And Fox and his teammates knew exactly how important gaining a measure of revenge was this time around.

    "We knew what was on the line," said Fox, who scored 24 points for the Kings.

    "This was just another obstacle in our way. We have to get over this hump.

    "Obviously, losing to this team last year and obviously facing this team now, it's like, of course we have to face this team."

    The Warriors, meanwhile, have now missed out on the playoffs for the third time in the past five seasons.

    "I was a sophomore in high school watching them win championships [four titles between 2015 and 2022]," Fox said.

    "We've been watching this team for a long time. If it is the end, it is what it is. I'm glad we're able to beat this team at this moment, but they definitely had a hell of a run."

    Stephen Curry managed 22 points for the Warriors, but he admitted Golden State were second-best.

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    The 39-year-old scored 23 points in the Lakers’ 110-106 victory and also contributed nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals.

    The Lakers go into the play-offs as the seventh seed and will face defending champions the Denver Nuggets in the first round.

    Speaking to reporters, James said: “It was a good all-round team win. This was a long road trip, you almost forget we were in Memphis before these two games.

    “Tonight was definitely a play-off game so get your mind right, get your body right, try to get as much recovery as we can before we have to go out there on Saturday.

    “It’s a sprint now, we already went through the marathon. Tonight we showcased what we’re able to do both offensively and defensively. We’ve got a good group going right now, a good rotation, good plan and guys are coming in ready to go.”

    James, who will compete in the play-offs for the 17th time in 21 seasons, feels his team have their work cut out against the Nuggets.

    “It’s the defending champion, they know what it takes, they know how to win, they’ve been extremely dominant at home over the last few years,” he said.

    “They’ve got high-level players, high IQ players, they’ve got a hell of a coach. We have to play mistake-free basketball and make it tough on them.”

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