The Biggest Story Line for Each 2024 NBA Play-In Game (2024)

The official start of the 2023-24 NBA playoffs remains days away, yet playoff discourse has already reached peak form. The play-in matchups and playoff seeds that resulted from the weekend’s Game 82 chaos set up one big question that immediately made headlines at ESPN and elsewhere: Should the eighth-seeded Lakers intentionally lose the West’s 7 vs. 8 play-in game because its winner will face the defending champion Denver Nuggets in the first round?

If they did, the Lakers would be forced into an elimination game against either the Sacramento Kings or Golden State Warriors, then—if they won—move on to face the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.

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This plan is preposterous. Here are four strategic reasons, without even getting into the competitive angle and the fact that LeBron James, of all people, is not going to throw a de facto playoff game:

  1. If the one-game tanking idea is premised on the Nuggets’ dominance, then the Lakers would probably have to beat them to advance to the Finals anyway. And the Lakers would probably have a better chance to do so in the first round, with plentiful off days between games for LeBron to rest, than they would with a more demanding schedule in the conference finals.
  2. The Thunder aren’t pushovers, despite looking like a more appealing matchup than the defending champs. Sure, the Lakers might match up better with Oklahoma City because of the size and experience gap, but Oklahoma City would still be considerable favorites in a playoff matchup. To assert differently is to severely underrate the playoff potential of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and friends. In the regular season, the Thunder bested the Lakers by wide margins in both offensive rank (third versus 15th) and defensive rank (fourth versus 17th). The Thunder were better before the All-Star break (second in net rating versus 19th) and after the All-Star break (third versus 14th). The Thunder have the best 3-point percentage and turnover margin of any team in the league.
  3. More importantly, if the Lakers lose to the Pelicans, they would not be guaranteed to win their subsequent elimination game to grab the no. 8 seed. The Kings swept the Lakers 4-0 this season while the Warriors won the season series 3-1, with L.A.’s only win coming in double overtime. That’s not to say that LeBron and Anthony Davis couldn’t reverse that history in a single game, but they’re far from a shoo-in to grab the no. 8 seed if they lose their first play-in try.
  4. For further emphasis, in a single game in a make-or-miss league, anything can happen. What if Steph Curry and Klay Thompson get hot in a single game the Lakers can’t afford to lose? What if D’Angelo Russell goes cold? What if Davis misses a quarter because he was poked in the eye? Avoiding Denver early is not remotely worth the risk.

That rant out of the way, here are four more story lines to watch from the first four play-in games this week.

New Orleans Pelicans Vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Zion Williamson’s Chance at Redemption

Let’s start with a hot take: Williamson hasn’t been nearly as terrible against the Lakers this season as the popular narrative suggests. In fact, Zion’s numbers against the Pelicans’ play-in opponent are in line with his overall production—and that was good enough to warrant fringe All-NBA consideration for the 2019 no. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson Vs. Lakers in 2023-24

Statistic Overall Vs. Lakers
Statistic Overall Vs. Lakers
PTS 22.9 20.3
REB 5.8 5.8
AST 5.0 5.5
TS% 61.0% 62.1%

Williamson’s problem is that he sandwiched two excellent performances against the Lakers—26 points on 12 shots in a win in late December, 30 points on 19 shots in a loss in February—between two terrible ones, and it just so happened that the latter pair was on national TV and had higher stakes.

In New Orleans’s in-season tournament loss in early December, Williamson scored just 13 points while appearing lethargic and disengaged. And in a loss last weekend that sent New Orleans into the play-in bracket, Zion scored only 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting. Together, those games represented two of his 10 lowest-scoring efforts all season.

Williamson struggled to match the Lakers’ energy and physicality for large swaths of those meetings, and the Lakers’ paint-packing strategy seemed to mess with his offensive rhythm. The Pelicans won’t be able to win this play-in game without a much stronger showing from Zion—both on offense, where he’ll need to score more than 12 or 13 points, and on defense, where he’ll be tasked with helping to defend LeBron.

If Williamson succeeds, he could help reverse the narrative that arose after New Orleans’s embarrassing 44-point blowout defeat in Las Vegas. If he fails, he might be in for a long summer, depending on how New Orleans fares in its next play-in game.

Sacramento Kings Vs. Golden State Warriors

Draymond Green’s Trick-or-Treat Trap

The last time the Warriors faced the Kings in high-stakes contests—a thrilling seven-game series in the 2023 first round—Green was suspended for a game after stomping on Domantas Sabonis’s chest. Such is the problem with a player who has committed even more acts of on-court violence in the year since.

Yet Green also helped stymie Sabonis’s typical production in that series, as the Kings’ All-Star center—battling injury, to be fair—averaged only 16 points on 49 percent shooting, well below his regular-season marks of 19 points per game and 62 percent shooting. Such is the promise of a player with Green’s résumé and unique two-way skill set.

Even now, as Green has dealt with further suspensions and ages into his mid-30s, he remains the Warriors’ second-most important player behind Curry. The Warriors’ net rating with Green on the floor this season was plus-4.9; with Green off, it was just plus-0.2. Brandin Podziemski was the team’s only rotation player with a better on-off swing.

And Green should once again prove vital in a matchup against the terribly thin Kings team, which lost both Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk to injuries. Sacramento is intact in the frontcourt, though, and Sabonis—who led the NBA with 13.7 rebounds per game this season—could in theory dominate the boards against the league’s shortest team.

But the Warriors aren’t a terrible rebounding outfit, ranking 16th in defensive rebounding rate, per Cleaning the Glass, and a positively stellar fourth on the offensive glass. Golden State doesn’t have any one rebounder as prolific as Sabonis, but led by Green, with 7.2 rebounds per game, the smaller Warriors are adept at gang rebounding across the positional spectrum.

Given the health disparity between the two rosters, the Warriors should win this game to reach the next play-in round. But they’ll need 30-plus effective minutes from Green to make that happen—and to advance further into the postseason thereafter.

Philadelphia 76ers Vs. Miami Heat

Joel Embiid’s Knee Health

Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s any less true: The state of Embiid’s knee is one of the two most important uncertainties, along with the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s strained calf, in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

With a mostly healthy Embiid, the 76ers are a legitimate challenger for a Finals berth, as their 8-0 run to close the season—Embiid played five of those games in his return from knee surgery—displayed. Without a mostly healthy Embiid, they’re doomed to another early postseason exit, preceding a summer of change.

Embiid played only one game against Miami this season: a four-point win just two weeks ago in which the reigning MVP went for 29 points, four rebounds, and three assists on 11-for-25 shooting. Bam Adebayo and Miami’s stout team defense have given Embiid problems in the past, but Embiid’s presence as a focal point on both offense and defense makes Philadelphia the favorite to advance.

The secondary story line in this game is whether the Heat have the foot speed on the perimeter to stop Embiid’s sidekick: Tyrese Maxey scored 37 points in their most recent meeting, for his third 30-point outing against Miami this season.

Playoff Jimmy Butler might arrive on Wednesday, and the Heat have their typical coterie of role players who are capable of exploding in a single game. But it seems possible, if not likely, that the 76ers will have the two leading scorers on Wednesday and that Miami will be hard-pressed to win if it can’t slow down Maxey and Embiid.

Chicago Bulls Vs. Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young’s Potential Last Game as a Hawk

Let’s be honest: This game, which has been destined for months, won’t matter much for the broader NBA title race. To make any noise in the playoffs, the winner of this game will have to upset the 76ers-Heat loser on the road, then upset the top-seeded, historically-great-in-the-regular-season Boston Celtics. Our playoff Odds Machine gives the two teams combined 0.44 percent odds to make it past the Celtics to reach the second round, which is about a 1-in-225 chance.

Both the Bulls and Hawks finished the season with losing records. They both had negative point differentials. They’re both dealing with crucial injuries (Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, and Lonzo Ball for the Bulls; Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Okongwu, and Saddiq Bey for the Hawks).

But in the bigger picture, this game could matter for future NBA title races. Because if the Hawks lose, it’s possible that they’ll do so in Young’s last game with the franchise, as they approach the summer needing a shake-up following three successive seasons of roughly .500 play or worse.

At this point, it’s clear that the Dejounte Murray blockbuster hasn’t panned out as expected, and the obvious move is to break up the Young-Murray backcourt pairing. Perhaps that means trading Murray, whose four-year, $114 million extension will kick in next season. Or perhaps that means trading Young, the franchise’s career leader in assists and 3-pointers and its first All-NBA point guard since Slater Martin for the St. Louis Hawks in the 1950s, because he’d generate a greater return.

Potentially, the Hawks wouldn’t even lose much without Young, despite his spectacular offensive skill set. This season, Atlanta has basically been as good with Young (minus-2.5 net rating) as it’s been without him (minus-2.1 net rating). Record-wise, the Hawks were even better when Young was injured, with a 14-14 split in games he missed, versus a 22-32 mark when he was available.

Both the eye test and advanced stats still rate Young as one of the league’s worst defenders, and the Hawks have ranked better than 21st in defensive rating, per CtG, just once in his career. (That was in 2020-21, when they ranked 16th on defense and earned a trip to the conference finals.) They were 26th this season, ahead of only four teams that were aggressively trying to lose.

But teams with a strong defensive foundation—like, say, the Spurs with Victor Wembanyama—could reasonably believe they could weather Young’s defensive demerits in exchange for a scoring boost. The NBA delivers a superstar trade every summer now. An early Hawks elimination would be fodder for another deal a couple of months down the line.

The Biggest Story Line for Each 2024 NBA Play-In Game (2024)
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