The NBA's regular season is over, and most of the playoff matchups are set. And as usual, there are plenty of interesting matchups.
In the Western Conference, the defending champion Golden State Warriors are going up against the Sacramento Kings, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, a time before the iPhone.
But while 12 of the 16 teams have their places booked, there are eight more teams that are hoping to join them. It is just that they have some work to do first.
These are the play-in teams, and one of them are the Toronto Raptors. Because the Play-in Tournament, which starts tonight, is a relatively new addition to the sport, we're going to break down how it works, and what you can expect for a very exciting four nights of basketball!
How did the playoffs used to work?
For decades, the NBA playoffs worked like this: The top eight teams in each conference (the Western and the Eastern) qualified for the postseason. Based on the strength of their regular season record (how many wins versus how many losses), they were seeded, or ranked, 1 to 8. Then they were paired off like this:
1 seed vs. 8
2 vs. 7
3 vs. 6
4 vs. 5
Then after three rounds of basketball, the last team standing in each conference faced off in the NBA Finals for the right to be crowned champion.
What has changed?
For the most part, the NBA playoffs still have the same playoff format. But how they determine the 7 and 8 seeds has changed slightly.
But since 2021, the 7th to 10th best teams in each conference now qualify for what is known as the Play-In Tournament (as in 'playing to get into the playoffs'). Unlike a playoff series though, which is best-of-seven games series, the play-in matchups are what are known as 'one-and-done'.
You play one game, and that matchup is over! No pressure!
Here's how it works (deep breath!):
The 7 and 8 seeds play each other, and the 9 and 10 play each other.
The winner of the 7/8 game advances to the playoffs as the new 7 seed. The loser gets one more chance to advance and faces the winner of the 9/10 game. And the winner of that game, becomes the 8 seed in the playoffs. (Meanwhile, the loser of that 9/10 game is out and gets no second-chance.)
Make sense? If it doesn't, no need to feel embarrassed—it's a bit confusing for us, too! Here's a chart that shows what we mean.
What is at stake for the Raptors?
Canada's only NBA team, the Toronto Raptors, are in the mix. But only by the skin of their curved Cretaceous teeth.
Toronto is the 9 seed in the Eastern Conference play-in, so there are two ways of looking at their situation.
On the bright side, only three years ago, they would already officially be out of the postseason. Yay, Play-In Tournament!
But on the other side, to advance, they must win two straight games. They cannot lose. And even if they can pull that off, their opponent will be the Milwaukee Bucks, a.k.a. the best team in the NBA. Yikes!
But first thing is first! In the 9/10 game this Wednesday, they will play the Chicago Bulls. And even if it is the only postseason game the Raptors play, it should be a really fun one to watch!
For starters, it is at home in Scotiabank Arena, a place where the Toronto crowd will be famously loud and firmly behind their team. That can be a big advantage.
Secondly, the leading scorer on Chicago is none other than DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan was a star in Toronto for years, before he was traded to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018. (A move that worked out pretty okay for the Raps.)
Despite that move, DeRozan has always kept a strong relationship with Toronto and its fans. He loves them and they love him. Of course, tomorrow night, he'll be doing everything to make sure that his Bulls come out on top. But it will add an extra sense of fun seeing a local hero return for such a huge game. (And if the Raptors win, there's a chance that their next showdown could be against the Miami Heat and another beloved ex-Raptor, Kyle Lowry.)
The Raptors won 2 of 3 games against the Bulls this season, but they were all pretty close. It should be a great game.
Let the postseason begin!