In a normal NBA season, it goes without saying that the No. 1 and 2 seeds from each conference enter the postseason with a couple of key advantages. Home court is certainly a big one, as is the chance to face the conference’s worst of the best — the No. 7 and 8 seeds — in the first round.
But 2020-21 is no normal season. While home court advantage still applies (especially now that fans are back in the stands), the unique format of this year’s Play-In tournament — whereby after the end of the regular season, the bottom four playoff contenders from each conference compete in an elimination tournament to determine the final two playoff spots — creates something of a disadvantage for the two highest seeds.
At least that’s how Los Angeles Clippers head coach Ty Lue sees it.
A Keen Observation From Lue
Speaking to reporters last week, Lue pointed out that the four middle seeds, 3-to-6, will have the benefit of knowing immediately who they’ll play in the first round of the playoffs. That gives them ample time to gameplay around matchups and focus on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The top two teams in each conference, however, will need to wait for the Play-In tourney to finish before they know who they’ll play, essentially forcing those organizations to throw darts at a board when it comes to strategizing.
“You play so hard to get to that situation of being a top-two seed in your conference, and then you don’t know who you’re playing. So that’s kind of a disadvantage to the top two seeds if you look at it that way. [Teams] three, four, five and six, they know their matchups for the first round, and they’ve got a week to prepare for that while the play-in games are going on. While the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are kind of sitting around and waiting to see who they’ll play.”
The disadvantage is further amplified by the fact that the tournament ends on May 21 — only one day before the actual playoffs begin. So even after the top two seeds learn who they’ll play, they’ll have only a day or two to really drill down on the task ahead.
Of course, the flip side to Lue’s point is freshness. While the top two seeds can use the week off to get healthy and rest up, the advancing play-in teams will undoubtedly be more bruised and battered after having spent a week fighting for their postseason lives. Given how, in this day and age, no player, no matter what team they play on, is an absolute unknown, the advantage of rest could easily outweigh the disadvantage of decreased preparedness.
But even the freshness argument has a counter, in that it often takes some players a game or two to get back up to speed and into rhythm following several days off. Too much time off can result in rustiness or stagnation for the top seeds, while the play-in teams, assuming they aren’t completely spent, will be as warm as ever.
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Lakers Could Be a Bigger Problem
When Lue made his observation, the Clippers were still very much in the hunt for one of those top two Western seeds, only a game back of the second-place Phoenix Suns. But in the time since, L.A. has lost to the Suns and the Denver Nuggets, and are now in fourth position, a half-game back of the Nuggets and three back of the Suns. (The first-place Utah Jazz have the same record as the Suns, but they hold the tiebreaker.) With only seven games remaining in the regular season, it seems unlikely the Clippers will do better than the third or fourth seed.
And while that may put to rest Lue’s concerns about preparedness, there is still another point of concern when it comes to seeding: the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Since losing both LeBron James and Anthony Davis to injuries earlier in the season, the Lakers have fallen back in the standings to sixth place. But Davis and James have both recently returned to action, which means that they will be a fiercely dangerous low seed once the postseason begins.
As things stand now, the No. 4 Clippers would face the No. 5 Dallas Mavericks in the first round, but it’s far from improbable that the Lakers, who have the same record as Dallas, will overtake the Mavericks before the season ends. That would result in a nightmare scenario for the Clippers, who would be forced to face a healthy Lakers squad hellbent on proving that they are still top dog in the City of Angels. Of course, the same scenario could play out if the Clippers move into third place and the Lakers stay in sixth, so it’s going to be a nerve-wracking last couple of weeks for the Clippers no matter what.