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Play-In Tournament Preview: Eight teams, four spots, one wild ride

The inaugural edition of the NBA Play-In Tournament features fun matchups, teams on the rise and eyes on the prize. Indiana Pacers host the Charlotte Hornets at 11:30pm on Tuesday night, with Washington Wizards against the Boston Celtics straight after live on Sky Sports Main Event & Arena

LeBron James and Steph Curry

The upcoming fight among eight teams vying for four postseason spots finally materialised on Sunday after a frenetic finish to the NBA regular season.

All the action tips off Tuesday with a Sky Sports doubleheader featuring the Eastern Conference portion of the tournament.

Tenth-seeded Charlotte hit the road to face Indiana in Game 1 (11:30 pm, Main Event & Arena), followed by a nightcap featuring the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards at No. 7 Boston (2:00 am, Main Event & Arena).

The Western Conference Play-In matchups commence Wednesday with No. 9 seed Memphis hosting No. 10 San Antonio (00:30 am, Main Event & Arena) followed by a clash between LeBron James and Stephen Curry, as the defending-champion Lakers host the Warriors (03:00 am, Main Event & Arena) in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game.

The full playoff bracket, including the Play-In Tournament, per NBA.com
Image: The full playoff bracket, including the Play-In Tournament, per NBA.com

"The key is how we come into practice tomorrow, our mentality to prepare," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, discussing his team's upcoming matchup against the Wizards, after Boston fell 96-92 to the New York Knicks in Sunday's regular-season finale. "We'll cover what we need to cover, and then go out and play a fast game with a clear mind."

Boston Celtics center Luke Kornet (40) battles for the ball against New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in New York, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (Vincent Carchietta/Pool Photo via AP) 2:00
Highlights of the Boston Celtics against the New York Knicks in Week 21 of the NBA

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's slow down and dive into a quick explanation of how this all works.

The Play-In Tournament takes place just before the opening round of the NBA playoffs, and involves the teams finishing 7th-10th in their respective conferences.

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The teams finishing the regular season sitting at seventh and eighth in each conference will receive two chances to win one game and advance to the playoffs, while the teams finishing at ninth and 10th in the standings will need to win two consecutive outings to earn a spot in the postseason.

Eastern Conference

Live NBA: Charlotte @ Indiana Play-In 1 18.05

Live NBA: Washington @ Boston Play-In 2 18.05

So, on the Eastern Conference side, both Charlotte and Indiana would need to capture two straight wins to secure the No. 8 seed for the postseason, while the winner between the Wizards and Celtics automatically takes the seventh seed for the playoffs, which commence on May 22.

The loser of the matchup between the Wizards and Celtics then goes on to host the winner between Charlotte and Indiana in a battle for the eighth and final playoff seed on Thursday (midnight, Main Event & Arena).

The loser of the Hornets-Pacers game is officially eliminated.

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, left, is fouled by Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans (42) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Washington. The foul was upgraded to a flagrant one. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) 1:54
Highlights of the Charlotte Hornets against the Washington Wizards in Week 21 of the NBA

Charlotte enters the play-in clash with Indiana having concluded the regular season on a season-high five-game skid, dropping two consecutive road games and six of the last seven outside the friendly confines of the Spectrum Center.

Hornets coach James Borrego views his team's recent struggles as fuel for a young team hungry to make a mark as soon as possible.

"Unfortunately, it hasn't gone our way these last couple [of games], but we fight on, we march on." Charlotte lost 115-110 on Sunday to the Wizards to fall to 10th in the conference standings.

Russell Westbrook dropped his 38th triple-double of the season while a hobbled Bradley Beal poured in 25 points to fuel Washington's victory.

Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook (4) goes to the basket past Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) 1:52
Russell Westbrook dropped 23 points, 10 assists and 15 rebound in the Wizards win over the Hornets. It was Westbrook's 184th career triple-double and his 38th this season alone, the most in the league

"It's great for our guys, a wonderful experience to go through this," Borrego said. "I know it feels extremely painful right now, but there's still more basketball to play. We're just focused on Tuesday right now. The past is behind us. We move forward.

"We've earned the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference, and now we get a chance to play postseason basketball. You just have to go through it. There's no script for this, there's no practice for this. All of this is going into the bank and is only going to make us better from here. This one stings, but Tuesday night is a new season."

Western Conference

Live NBA: San Antonio @ Memphis Play-In 3 19.05

Live NBA: Golden State @ LA Lakers Play-In 4 19.05

On the Western Conference side of the bracket, the Grizzlies and Spurs face off in a single-elimination scenario, with the winner hitting the road to face the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game between the Lakers and Warriors on Friday night (01:00am, Main Event & Arena) for the eighth and final seed. The winner between Los Angeles and Golden State heads into the NBA Playoffs as the seventh seed.

Memphis and San Antonio, meanwhile, need to win back-to-back elimination games to advance.

Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne (15) shoots over San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Antonio, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) 2:36
Highlights of the Phoenix Suns against the San Antonio Spurs in Week 21 of the NBA

"It's just two games to get into the playoffs," said Spurs' center Jakob Poeltl, after San Antonio fell 123-121 to Phoenix on E'Twaun Moore's 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining. "It's far from an impossible task. It's going to be tough, no question. But we are definitely capable of doing that."

The Warriors likely feel similarly against the defending champs after closing out the season winning six in a row, as Curry captured the NBA scoring title with 46 points to lead Golden State to a 113-101 win over Memphis. The performance marked Curry's 38th game with at least 30 points, and he's racked up 30-point nights in 21 of his last 24 contests.

The Grizzlies and Warriors each entered the regular-season finale with 38-33 records on five-game winning streaks.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots a 3-point basket in front of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant during the second half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) 2:21
Highlights of the Memphis Grizzlies against the Golden State Warriors in Week 21 of the NBA

"[Steph] has never been better," said Golden State coach Steve Kerr. "I can say he's been great for a long time. So, it's hard to say he's at his best now because he's been like this for years. What I think is different this year is his supporting cast. We've got a much younger team. He's been asked to do a lot more with this group, and he's gone above and beyond what we've asked of him."

Curry will need to do it again Wednesday at Los Angeles, who had hoped to avoid the Play-In Tournament.

Curry hoisted up a career-high 36 shots, and a career-high 22 three-pointers, in the win over Memphis.

"The first thing I told the guys in the locker room [is] no matter what anyone says, I appreciate what they've all brought to this season because it wasn't pretty, and it wasn't a steady climb at all even to get to this spot," Curry said.

"But I appreciate everybody out there committing to how we play, and that's really unlocked what I do best [to] try to help myself and help out everybody else, especially on the offensive end of the floor."

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