NBA Playoffs 2021: Play-In Tournament rules, dates, and format

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NBA Playoffs 2021: Play-In Tournament rules, dates, and format originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

As the NBA regular season winds down, the Chicago Bulls are hoping to finish in the top 10 and make the playoffs via the league's new Play-In Tournament.

Chicago has struggled mightily since trading for Nikola Vucevic, and it has fallen all the way to the No. 11 spot in the conference. Still, the Bulls aren't completely out of it. They are just a half-game behind the Washington Wizards for the No. 10 seed. While the No. 9 seed seems further out of reach (the Bulls are 2.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers), Chicago could make a run during the final month before the 2021 NBA Playoffs are set to begin.

The Bulls' place in the standings is something fans will have to keep a close eye on down the final stretch, with possible scenarios and odds changing almost daily.

Here's everything you need to know about this year's Play-In Tournament if the Bulls qualify:

What is the Play-In Tournament?

The NBA Play-In Tournament is a new format the league introduced to determine the eight playoff teams from each conference.

The league had already tested a version of the play-in format last summer when teams like the Bulls took part in the 2020 NBA restart in Orlando.

At the time, the Portland Trail Blazers played the Memphis Grizzlies to earn a berth in the Western Conference playoffs. There was no play-in game for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

When would the Bulls play in the Play-In Tournament?

The Play-In Tournament will begin May 18, two days after the Bulls' final regular season game against the Milwaukee Bucks on May 16.

The last game of the tournament will be May 21, with the first round of the NBA playoffs tipping off May 22.

How does the Play-In Tournament's structure impact the Bulls?

The Play-In Tournament will have six games involving eight teams, split up between the two conferences.

The Bulls would need to finish Nos. 1-6 in the Eastern Conference standings to qualify for the playoffs. If they finish Nos. 7-10, the Bulls will take part in the Play-In Tournament. 

Chicago would have to play flawless basketball down the stretch of this season, and get some help from other teams, in order to finish in the top six in the East. However, the Play-In Tournament does allow the Bulls a chance to make up for their struggles in the second half of the season.

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The NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings.

Game 1: The highest-winning percentage team at No. 7 in each conference will host the highest-winning percentage team at No. 8 to compete for the seventh seed in the playoffs. The losing team will have a second chance to make the playoffs in Game 3. 

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 Game 2: The team with the highest winning percentage at No. 9 in each conference will host the team with the highest winning percentage at No. 10. The winner will play for a playoff berth in Game 3, while the losing team will enter the NBA draft lottery.

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Game 3: The losing team of No. 7 vs. No. 8 (Game 1) will play the winning team of No. 9 vs. No. 10 (Game 2) for the eighth seed in the playoffs. The losing team will enter the NBA draft lottery.

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Could Chicago host a Play-In Tournament game?

With the COVID-19 vaccines continuing to roll out, the NBA has no plans to bring back the bubble. The Play-In Tournament will be held at home arenas, with the highest-winning percentage teams hosting each game.

So, while unlikely, there's a possibility of the Bulls hosting a single-elimination playoff game this spring if they can move past the No. 10 spot.

Are the Bulls projected to be in the Play-In Tournament?

If the season ended today, April 23, these would be the teams to compete in the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament:

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Charlotte Hornets at No. 7 Miami Heat

No. 10 Washington Wizards at No. 9 Indiana Pacers

Western Conference

No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies at No. 7 Dallas Mavericks

No. 10 Golden State Warriors at No. 9 San Antonio Spurs

The Chicago Bulls are still a half-game back of Washington and will have some work to do if they want to be included in the Play-In Tournament.