Play-in pressure on Kerr

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star
Play-in pressure on Kerr
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 24: Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr shouts to his team during their game against the Atlanta Hawks in the first half at Chase Center on January 24, 2024 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Ezra Shaw / Getty Images / AFP

Three dates are reserved for six games involving eight teams in the NBA’s play-in tournament with only four, two from the East and two from the West, surviving to advance to the playoffs starting Saturday (Sunday morning, Manila time). Play-in fireworks begin this morning (Manila time) as four Western Conference squads square off, featuring No. 7 New Orleans against No. 8 LA Lakers and No. 9 Sacramento against No. 10 Golden State. Tomorrow, it’s the Eastern Conference’s turn to battle as No. 7 Philadelphia takes on No. 8 Miami and No. 9 Chicago faces No. 10 Atlanta.

The top six finishers in the East and West are safely in the playoffs. The last two tickets in both conferences will be awarded to the play-in survivors. The play-in format was introduced in the 2019-20 season but it involved only the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds in the East and West if they were within four games of each other. The next season, the NBA tweaked the format to include teams from No. 7 to No. 10, institutionalizing it as a permanent fixture in the schedule.

In the play-in matchups, the losers in the No. 9 against No. 10 duels are eliminated outright, meaning a do-or-die for the Kings, Warriors, Bulls and Hawks. The winners of No. 7 against No. 8 automatically advance to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed while the losers will meet the No. 9 and No. 10 survivors for the No. 8 slot. 

There’s pressure on Golden State coach Steve Kerr to win twice in the play-in to clinch No. 8 in the playoffs. The reward is tangling with No. 1 Oklahoma City in the first round. The Warriors and Kings split their four-game regular season series and they wound up with identical 46-36 records. But Sacramento took the higher seed because of a superior Pacific Division record, 10-6 against Golden State’s 7-9. The Kings have lost three of their last four while the Warriors have won four of their last five. Consensus Sixth Man awardee Malik Monk remains out of commission because of a right knee MCL sprain and won’t be available until sometime next month if the Kings are still in the hunt. Kevin Huerter is out for the season with a shoulder injury and will be missed. Together, they average 25.6 points. Kings center Domas Sabonis is the league’s leader in triple (26) and double-doubles (77) so Golden State’s challenge is to contain the 6-10 Lithuanian. Kerr’s small-ball style may no longer be in vogue as the bigs are back to dominate with their versatility and size. But the Warriors’ championship pedigree is a major influencer and in the end, Steph Curry is expected to hold up the flag high with Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Jonathan Kuminga.

The Lakers defeated the Pelicans in three of four regular season encounters, including their last game where LA won, 124-108 with LeBron James collecting 28 points, 11 rebounds and 17 assists. If the Lakers take No. 7, they’ll go up against defending champion Denver in the first round. James can’t do it alone and will need backup from AD, DLo Russell, Austin Reaves, Taurean Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie and Rui Hachimura to go far.

In the East, Atlanta has lost its last six while Chicago is 5-5 in its last 10. Trey Young sat out 23 games before rejoining the Hawks for the last three games of the regular season to no avail. Bogdan Bogdanovic had a recent verbal altercation with coach Quin Snyder and while they’ve reconciled, things look shaky at Atlanta. The Bulls are laboring without injured Zach Levine and Lonzo Ball but DeMar DeRozan, Coby White and Nikola Vucevic should be enough to repulse the Hawks. The problem is whichever team survives the KO game won’t survive playing the loser of No. 7 and No. 8, whether the Sixers or Heat.

Philadelphia has won its last eight games while Miami, seven of its last 10. Last season, No. 7 Miami lost its first play-in game and beat No. 10 Chicago to take the No. 8 seed then eliminated No. 1 Milwaukee, No. 5 New York and No. 2 Boston to reach the Finals. Joel Embiid has played only 39 games this season and without him, the Sixers were 16-27. Embiid and Jimmy Butler didn’t play in three of the four Sixers-Heat games in the regular season so the play-in will be a totally new experience. Former Miami guard Kyle Lowry is now with the Sixers and he’s got an axe to grind after his release. Coach Erik Spoelstra is counting on a full deck but Terry Rozier and Duncan Robinson skipped the last four games with injuries. The team that finishes No. 7 will meet New York in the first round while No. 8 takes on Boston, holding home court advantage as long as the Celtics stay alive in the playoffs.

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