The NBA Play-In Tournament Isn't Quite the Regular Season or the Playoffs

There are a few mid-April NBA games that feel like game 7s that aren't regular season or playoff games — meet the NBA Play-In Tournament.

Brandon Charles - Author

Apr. 16 2024, Published 8:20 a.m. ET

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat in the 2023 Heat vs Atlanta Hawks play-in game
Source: Getty Images

The NBA Playoffs are about to begin. For the casual fan, which is most of America, it’s when they start paying attention to more than the biggest names in the game.

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One of the very few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the NBA Play-In Tournament, now officially the SoFi 2024 NBA Play-In Tournament. Not exactly the regular season, not exactly the playoffs, the play-in was created because of a COVID-related short season. Since it worked so well, it has become part of the structure of the season. Now the 10 best teams in each conference have a chance to play past mid-April. But what does the regular basketball fan need to know?

Chicago Bulls' DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls before a 2023 play-in game
Source: Getty Images
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The NBA Play-In Tournament isn't nearly as complicated as it sounds.

The FAQ page about the SoFi 2024 NBA Play-In Tournament on the NBA website starts simple and gets confusing. The "What is the Play-In Tournament?" section is clear and states, “The SoFi NBA Play-In Tournament will determine the teams that fill the seventh and eighth playoff seeds in each conference for the 2024 NBA playoffs.” Got it. Sounds straightforward.

The "How does the Play-In Tournament work?" section isn't straightforward. Instead of using the NBA’s language, we’ll lay it out.

The 7–10 teams in the standings in each conference have a chance to make the postseason. Team 7 and 8 play each other and Team 9 and 10 play each other. Whoever wins in 7 vs. 8 advances and becomes the 7 seed. Whoever wins in 9 vs. 10 plays the loser of 7 vs. 8. Whichever team wins that game is the 8 seed. Simple, right?

OK, it still sounds confusing, but it isn't. There’s a helpful graphic.

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The Play-In Tournament games aren't playoff games.

For reasons that are more confusing than the structure of the play-in tournament, these games don’t officially count as playoff games. While this doesn’t matter to the casual fan, it does for the NBA obsessive stat freaks.

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While the only stat that actually means anything is who wins and loses, some historically great games are essentially in no man's land. For example, LeBron James scored 22 points and had 11 rebounds and 10 assists for the Lakers in their 2021 play-in game victory over the Golden State Warriors. But that didn’t count in his 2021 playoff record or his 2021 regular season record.

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat guarded by Alex Caruso of the Chicago Bulls in a 2023 play-in game.
Source: Getty Images
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For the super obsessive, you can find the stats for all play-in tournament games where you’d find stats for all games. You just need to change the season type on the NBA Advanced Stats page. Located between All Star and In-Season Tournament are the records for these very watchable games.

Once again, the only stats that really matter are who wins. Considering the organization that represented the East in the last NBA Finals had to go through the play-in tournament, the Miami Heat, just because a team finished around 0.500 for the regular season record doesn’t mean they can’t be the best team in the playoffs.

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