From the current seeds to all the potential tiebreakers, this is how the NBA play-in tournament works.
When is the NBA's play-in tournament?
The play-in tournament runs from May 18-21, beginning two days after the regular season ends.
How does the play-in tournament work?
The seventh-place team in both conferences hosts the eighth-place team. The winner advances as the seventh seed to face the No. 2 seed in the first round of the playoffs, which are scheduled to begin May 22.
The ninth-place team in both conferences hosts the 10th-place team. The loser of that game is eliminated.
The loser of the 7-8 game then hosts the winner of the 9-10 game to determine the No. 8 seed.
Who is going to be in the tournament?
Seeding top to bottom in both conferences is still to be determined in the final week of the regular season. The races in each conference for fifth and sixth place — the final two guaranteed playoff spots — should be wild. On the bright side, no team is at real risk of falling out of the tournament completely, meaning the ninth- and 10th-place teams are all but guaranteed more meaningful basketball, barring a massive collapse.
The relevant standings:
5. Atlanta Hawks (37-31)
6. Miami Heat (37-31)
7. Boston Celtics (35-33)
8. Charlotte Hornets (33-35)
9. Washington Wizards (32-36)
10. Indiana Pacers (31-36)
5. Dallas Mavericks (40-28)
6. Portland Trail Blazers (39-29)
7. Los Angeles Lakers (38-30)
8. Golden State Warriors (35-33)
9. Memphis Grizzlies (34-33)
10. San Antonio Spurs (32-35)
What if teams finish with identical records?
The same order of tiebreakers that have always applied to playoff seeds are still relevant to the tournament.
1. Head-to-head record
Three (or more)-team tiebreaker:
1. Division winner
2. Combined head-to-head record
3. Division win percentage (if same division)
4. Intra-conference win percentage
5. Intra-conference win percentage against playoff teams
6. Point differential
Wait, divisions still matter in the NBA?
They do! The league no longer guarantees home playoff series to division winners, but it did not abandon division records as a form of seeding tiebreakers. Only two races matter as it relates to the tournament.
The Mavericks will win a rather sorry Southwest Division, which would give them a tiebreaker in the rare instance they finish the season with the same record as both the division also-ran Blazers and Lakers. That could mean the difference between a fifth seed and a play-in tournament spot in the Western Conference.
In the East, the Southeast Division title comes down to Atlanta and Miami. The Hawks won the season series and will win the division in the event the Heat own an identical record. If a third team finishes with the same record, Atlanta owns the tiebreaker — potentially the difference between a playoff seed or play-in bid.
Who owns which head-to-head tiebreakers?
Teams only played their intra-conference rivals three times this season instead of the customary four, which simplifies the two-team tiebreaking process. Relevant head-to-head records for the play-in are as follows:
• Miami won its season series with Atlanta, 2-1.
• Atlanta won its season series with Boston, 2-1.
• The season series between Boston and Miami is tied, 1-1. The Celtics host the Heat on Tuesday.
• Boston won its season series with Charlotte, 2-1.
• Charlotte won its season series with Indiana, 2-1, and Washington, 2-1.
• Washington won its season series with Indiana, 3-0.
• Dallas won its season series with the Lakers, 2-1.
• Portland won its season series with Dallas, 2-1.
• Portland won its season series with the Lakers, 2-1.
• The season series between Memphis and Golden State is tied, 1-1. The Warriors host the Grizzlies on May 16.
• Golden State won its season series with San Antonio, 2-1.
• Memphis won its season series with San Antonio, 2-1.
What would be the best play-in matchup?
Easy: the Lakers and Warriors. There is a real chance Golden State sensation Stephen Curry could meet LeBron James and the defending champions with playoff stakes on the line in a one-game showdown — maybe even a loser-goes-home scenario. It has been three years since Curry and James met in their fourth consecutive Finals. That matchup had grown tired by 2018, if only because a Warriors win felt inevitable, but now that Curry and Draymond Green would be considered underdogs, a rivalry is ready to be renewed.
What is the probability a ninth- or 10th-place team makes the playoffs?
If all teams were created equal in a neutral environment, the seventh- and eighth-place teams would each have a 50% chance of making the playoffs. The ninth- and 10th-place teams would both have a 25% shot.
Because teams are not filling arenas during the coronavirus pandemic, it is unclear how big home-court advantage will be in the play-in tournament. Traditionally, home teams in the NBA have won roughly 57% of regular-season games. Over the course of this season, that number dipped to 53%. Again, if all teams were equal, using this year's home/road figure, the 10th-place team's playoff probability would fall to about 22%.
Only, all teams are not created equal. Say the Lakers were to host the Spurs in a win-or-go-home game. With a healthy James and Anthony Davis, the defending champions might win eight or nine times out of 10.
The Wizards are the flip-side to that argument. They were ravaged by COVID-19 early in the season. Russell Westbrook took months to get himself right after a 2019-20 campaign bookended by injury and to integrate himself into Washington's roster. The Wizards are 1-8 without Beal in the lineup. Right away they are an above-.500 team with the NBA's leading scorer on the court — on par with any potential play-in opponent.
Since Beal returned from a hip injury on April 7, when Westbrook was weeks into his resurgence, the Wizards are 15-4. One of those losses came as Beal rested the second night of a back-to-back. That run also coincides with the addition of a healthy Daniel Gafford, the underrated 22-year-old rim-running center Washington acquired at the trade deadline. This is a whole different team than it was even two months ago.
No play-in team is going to feel better than a coin flip facing Beal and Westbrook in a must-win game.
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