4 Teams That Could Flourish In The Play-in Tournament And Prove To Be Tough Outs

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Updated: May 7, 2021
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The roller coaster ride that is the 2020-2021 NBA season inches towards a photo finish with the play-in tournament providing all the drama the league was hoping for. The tournament is not without its fair share of haters as Luka Doncic and LeBron James have voiced their displeasure with the new format. King James even called for the firing of the over creative mind who came up with the idea.

Fun fact—Doncic and James both made their comments as the reality of the tournament started to tap their teams on the shoulder despite hopes of soaring higher than the dreaded 7 seed or lower.

Meanwhile, teams vying for seeds 8-10 are grinning at the possibilities of not only getting in but also making some noise if they secure their spot.

Four teams are circling the waters of the playoffs and could prove to be more than just tough outs if they get in.

Washington Wizards

The fact the Wizards are about to clinch a play-in spot is nothing short of miraculous considering where they were earlier in the season. Bradley Beal trade rumors were relentless as were the countless memes showing him in a depressed state after 40 plus point performances that ended with losses. The Wizards were in shambles but Beal seemed determined to finish the season in DC. Luckily, he stayed the course which allowed Russell Westbrook to get healthy and give Beal the running mate he had been longing for since John Wall’s lower extremities faded into oblivion.

Now the Wizards are a juggernaut. Yes—a juggernaut. Over the last 15 games, they rank sixth in defensive rating and seventh in offensive rating. Westbrook is making a joke of the NBA record book by averaging another triple-double while easing the pressure off Beal.  Davis Bertans has regained his stroke and the addition of Daniel Gafford has been masterful. There isn’t a hotter team in the league except for the equally surprising Knicks.

Both Beal and Westbrook have the potential to be the best player on the floor on any given night and that’s scary for higher-seeded teams. Against some of their potential first-round opponents, the Wizards are 2-1 vs the Nets and they played the Bucks insanely close with all three games decided by five points or less.

Golden State Warriors

Golden State is too proud to tank but the Dubs have been written off no less than three times this season after stretches of games where they looked lottery-bound. After one of those rough patches, analysts and fans began questioning Stephen Curry’s ability and current elite standing. Trix really are for kids and so is any doubt thrown at the two-time MVP who should have nothing to prove to anybody at this stage of his career.  Curry responded with a torrid month of April where he averaged 37.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists on shooting splits of 52/47/91.

Despite the ups and downs, Golden State has a chance at getting the eighth seed and only having to win one of the games in the play-in round. Curry’s career stretches of spectacular shooting is legendary and he could easily stay this scorching throughout the remainder of the season, no matter how long that is. He will need help to pull off something crazy but only Andrew Wiggins is showing a pulse when it comes to offensive consistency. To be blunt, that’s frightening. It’s unclear exactly when Draymond Green developed a shooting allergy but he wants no part of trying to score the ball. At least he knows who to give the ball to as Curry is the recipient of 45.6% of all of Greens dishes this season.

Despite being one-dimensional, what is on the Warriors’ side, if they get in, is the fact that two unproven teams sit at the top of West in the forms of Utah and Phoenix. Neither team should be excited about a potential matchup with the shimmy-crazed three-point assassin who would like nothing more than to big game hunt and add another head to his Hall-of-Fame mantle.

Charlotte Hornets

Buzz City once sat as high as fourth in the East before injuries stung them like their namesake. It should have been wrap city for their playoff hopes as two of their starters exited with lengthy injuries. Gordon Hayward, unfortunately, ended up on his annual injury-induced siesta after looking like a wise investment despite the naysayers who commented on his contract. LaMelo Ball suffered a wrist injury that he’s since returned from and Malik Monk (also now returned) missed significant time.

Somehow Coach Borrego found a way to keep the lineup viable while crafting the offense around Terry Rozier and his career season. Just as Ball and Monk return, now they are dealing with Miles Bridges and the COVID protocols that will keep him out 10-14 days. But the Hornets have shown they are resilient.  For much of the year, Charlotte led the league in clutch performance and have only slipped to eighth in the eastern conference standings with the myriad of injuries they’ve endured.

This team genuinely likes each other and the youthful exuberance of Ball gives them a swag most teams seeded this low wouldn’t have. Hayward and Bridges could be back by the time the play-in tournament takes place giving the squad the reinforcements needed for a battle with any of the East elite.  If they are fortunate enough to get in, those early season clutch performances will loom large when embracing the pressure of the playoffs. Similar to Golden State they would potentially face unproven teams who have a lot riding on this season as both Philadelphia and Brooklyn aren’t accustomed to being the conference’s hunted.

Memphis Grizzlies

Many called it a season for the Grizzlies after Ja Morant suffered an ankle injury against the Nets in the early part of the year. He ended up only missing eight games thanks to his apparently Wolverine-like healing ability and, ironically, COVID protocols that postponed a handful of games while he was supposed to be out. The Grizzlies still have a bad taste in their mouth from the bubble let down and didn’t let Morant’s injury send them into a tailspin.

What’s scary about this team, in a nutshell, is their willingness to share the ball and that is a credit to Morant but is also the result of head coach Taylor Jenkins. The Grizzlies rank sixth in assists and have had nights where Kyle Anderson, Grayson Allen or even Desmond Bane has led them in scoring—in wins. Jonas Valanciunas has found a home and is no longer riding the pine in crunch time. You may not read this anywhere else, but Valanciunas deserves to be in the lower part of the top-five in the most improved conversation. All of this while Jaren Jackson Jr. has missed the majority of the season.

Their do-it-by-committee approach is unconventional for today’s star-driven league and not knowing exactly where it’s coming from can keep their opponents off balance…to a certain extent. Of course, they still have the acrobatic Morant who is anxious to embarrass his team’s doubters.  Memphis didn’t fare well against Utah finishing 0-3 on the season but two of the games were within four points. They were able to snatch a win against the Suns in their first match-up but were throttled in the final two meetings. But again this is a weird year with unproven top seeds in both conferences, Memphis isn’t likely to be dissuaded against either team.

An important caveat to remember here is that this isn’t to oversell the chances of any of these teams but rather to say they do have a chance in some form.  Astute readers will point to the fact these teams are fighting for their lives after turmoil much of the regular season. But there is something to be said about getting hot at the right time and playing your best basketball entering the playoffs. While a Miami Heat bubble-like run is unlikely for any of the aforementioned teams, their opponents are in for a dog fight that wouldn’t ordinarily be present with seeding disparities of this nature.

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