With a Lakers-Warriors matchup on tap, the NBA's play-in format clearly worked
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
The man in charge of the NBA play-in tournament woke up to some unsettling news two weeks ago, when LeBron James said he should be fired as the Lakers slid in the standings. Now, if anything, he'll be getting a promotion.
In what will be the most highly anticipated game of the season, the defending champion Lakers will have to fight for their playoff lives in a play-in game against the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.
The winner of that game will officially claim the seventh seed and play the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. The loser will play the winner of the play-in game between the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and 10th-seeded San Antonio Spurs for the eighth and final spot. The team in that spot will take on the top-seeded Utah Jazz.
Lakers vs. Warriors is the most intriguing play-in matchup possible, the holy grail of excitement, tension and fun for a league that has been battered by financial losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will be James vs. Stephen Curry in a must-win scenario, with both superstars trying to avoid an early summer break. The two have a long-established rivalry after meeting in the NBA Finals four straight seasons from 2015 to '18, with James' Cleveland Cavaliers winning only one of those series in 2016.
This rivalry, however, isn't fueled by hatred. Instead, it's fueled by deep mutual respect.
Said Curry of James: "At the end of the day, you expect greatness."
Said James of Curry: "We're playing versus, in my opinion, the MVP of our league this year in Steph."
That's right. James, the face of the league and a favorite to win the MVP before he injured his ankle earlier this season, spoke out in favor of the guy he'll go toe-to-toe against in a few days to win the honor.
When prodded further, James sang Curry's praises for three minutes, talking about everything he has accomplished and all of the ceilings he has shattered this season. Curry, 33, led the NBA in scoring, averaging 32 points per game, besting his previous scoring title (2015-16), when he averaged 30.1 points and was unanimously voted MVP.
"Everybody counted him out this year. Everybody’s saying, oh, now that Klay [Thompson] is hurt, can Steph lead the team on his own?" James said. "What is he going to be able to do? Can he carry a team on his own? Can he carry a team into the postseason? Can he keep a team afloat? He’s done that and more."
James, meanwhile, didn't have the season he was supposed to have.
After an incredible start that had fans talking about how the 36-year-old had once again defied Father Time, James suffered a sprained right ankle that sidelined him for 26 games, the longest absence of his 18-season career.
James appeared to retweak his ankle midway through the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 110-98 victory over New Orleans on Sunday, but James insisted he was fine.
Even so, he couldn't help but lament that his season could've gone much differently if Atlanta Hawks forward Solomon Hill hadn't reached between his legs to try to steal the ball and then crashed into his right leg on March 20.
"Yeah, it’s been hard to tackle it because I was playing some of the best basketball of my career before the injury," James said. "And it was not, it wasn’t, like, a self-inflicted wound. It wasn’t something I could control. It wasn’t like I was putting in work and then my body failed me. Literally had a grown man diving at my leg for a loose ball, and here’s the injury.
"... But you know, it cost me seven weeks of the season, six weeks of the season, which I still think back on, I still hate it. I’m still not comfortable with it or even [given] much thought to it as far as what this season could have been for me, personally. So I’ve hated every moment of that, but it is what it is. This is the time. The time is now, and I’m ready for it."
So here we are.
On one side of the ring, there's Curry, the man who made a mockery of all of his doubters this season.
On the other side, there's James, a man nobody is dumb enough to doubt at this time of year.
It's a dream come true for the league and for Evan Wasch, who is "the play-in guy" — or the executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, according to his formal title.
In an interview with FOX Sports last week, Wasch said the play-in tournament is an idea the league has batted around since 2009, in part as a way to make the end of the regular season more interesting.
Mission more than accomplished.
Wasch said the league's national average television ratings in April were up about 25% over what they were in March. In the first half of May, they were up about 20% over what they were in April.
He pointed out that four days before the season ended, none of the 20 teams in contention was locked into a particular spot. Three days before it ended, only two seeds were set, with the Boston Celtics at seventh in the East and the Spurs at 10th in the West.
On Sunday, everything was still up in the air, and things weren't set until the final games of the evening. The Lakers could have avoided the play-in tournament if they won and Portland lost to Denver. But the Trail Blazers won 132-116.
"We just can't achieve that without a play-in tournament," Wasch said.
The NBA board of governors unanimously approved the play-in tournament this season. There will be another vote before next season to see if it will continue or be altered.
Wasch feels confident that from the league's perspective, this has been a giant win. "We have six games that will have that Game 7 feel to them," Wasch said.
In the Eastern Conference, the seventh-seeded Celtics will play the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards on Tuesday. The winner of that game will finish seventh, and the loser will play the winner of the play-in game between the ninth-seeded Indiana Pacers and the 10th-seeded Charlotte Hornets for the eighth and final spot.
It has been a wild time for everyone around the NBA, especially Wasch, who woke up at 6 a.m. May 3 to a flood of text messages. After the Lakers lost to Toronto on May 2, James told reporters, "Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired," referencing the play-in tournament.
Obviously, one person didn't come up with the idea. Wasch knew it was nothing personal. When he read James' comment, he giggled.
After all, heading into this time of year, Wasch anticipated there would be some unhappiness.
"We knew going in that whichever teams ended up in the seventh and eighth positions in the standings would feel that they've been disadvantaged relative to a normal season or a prior season where they would've been guaranteed a playoff spot and now have to fight their way through the play-in," Wasch said.
"So if you had asked us ahead of time, do you think the teams that finish seventh and eighth will like this format or not like this format, I'm fairly confident they would've said they would not like this format."
Some players might not be thrilled, but everyone else is eagerly awaiting the play-in tournament, which will extend from Tuesday to Friday.
Especially that one game featuring James and Curry, two of the greatest players of all time.
It has the potential to be just as fun as any basketball we see in June or July.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.