The brand-new NBA play-in tournament already looked like a gimmicky cash grab that wouldn’t ultimately generate the best-possible quality of playoff basketball. That perception indeed came to fruition when the Golden State Warriors lost in overtime to the Memphis Grizzlies Friday night.
Instead of getting, you know, Stephen Curry and the Warriors squaring off with the Utah Jazz — owners of the NBA’s best record during the regular season — it’s the Grizzlies taking the West’s eighth and final playoff berth.
It seems like the Jazz’s best player, Donovan Mitchell, will have his ankle healed in time to roll for Game 1, but like many other of the sport’s prominent stars, he got banged up down the stretch in part due to the NBA’s swift turnaround from last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Testing out the play-in tournament would’ve been a fine idea maybe next season. But now? Honestly, the NBA is lucky things didn’t turn out worse.
NBA play-in tournament featured cheap thrills, bad conclusion
Sure, it was exciting to see LeBron James hit a desperation 3-pointer to lift the Los Angeles Lakers to a tight victory over the Warriors in the West’s first play-in game. Heck, Friday’s grand finale went to overtime, so it couldn’t exactly be called anticlimactic.
But again, why even play these games in the first place?
LeBron is the longtime face of the league. He’s been hampered by a high ankle sprain, and his superstar teammate, Anthony Davis, has struggled to stay healthy after last year’s championship run as well.
Had we just gone by the old tradition of judging an entire season’s body of work — in this case, 72 games instead of 82, but still a plentiful sample size — the Lakers would’ve faced the Phoenix Suns anyway, and Golden State would be in the playoffs.
Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum scorched the Washington Wizards for 50 points to help the C’s secure the East’s seventh seed. Guess what? He just blew an extraordinary performance on a one-game tournament. Boston faces the Brooklyn Nets, and will need Tatum to probably average 40 a night if there’s any chance of an upset.
Speaking of the Wizards, their inspiring late-season run, led by Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, almost got derailed by the silly play-in tourney by a team that hardly cared to be there in the first place.
Despite their blowout win over Charlotte in the play-in opener, make no mistake, the Indiana Pacers have quit on their coach Nate Bjorkgren. Is that outlandish to say? Oh okay, I guess that 142-115 loss to Washington just after stinging the Hornets 144-117, wasn’t a statement of any kind.
Seriously, it was as if the Pacers collectively said, across those two games, “Yes, we can play at a high level for each other. Just not for this guy.”
Indiana was one victory away from the playoffs, and thankfully, seemed determined not to win against the Wizards.
Friday’s NBA play-in tournament conclusion saw Curry and Golden State not only go up against the injury-ridden, defending champs, but then turn around and face off with a desperate, hungry Memphis squad playing with house money.
Curry carried the Dubs so far, and in the end, he might as well have just rested up for Klay Thompson’s eventual return next season.
NBA play-in tournament probably won’t go away, but it should
So maybe NBA TV ratings went up for the play-in tournament initially, but how do you think ratings will do in that epic Jazz-Grizzlies series?
These are already two small-market franchises, and having the Warriors in Memphis’ stead would’ve created some serious, much-needed buzz. It also would’ve helped shine a brighter light on a Utah team that, again, had more wins than anyone during the 2020-21 campaign.
Hopefully, Golden State — after finishing ahead of the Grizzlies in the final regular-season standings, but still failing to make the playoffs — will be driven to improve the roster around Curry. The Dubs can use this setback as motivation to ascend beyond the play-in range, provided it’s back next season.
Getting Thompson back will help, yet Curry’s extraordinary efforts en route to a scoring title will be difficult to replicate, so it’s more than a matter of returning his fellow Splash Brother and getting more out of No. 2 overall draft pick James Wiseman next season.
Teams have plenty of time to earn their playoff spots during the regular season. Grinding for that long, and then having to go all-out for a short play-in event before taking a top-seeded opponent, is unnecessary and ultimately waters down the NBA playoff product as a whole.