With the start of the 2020/21 NBA season, there is a new playoff format in the works. The NBA changed their play-off format in September 2015. The top 8 teams in the East and west conferences would be ranked by order according to win-loss records and qualify to play in the play-offs.

The Play-off

The playoff includes a play-in tournament involving multiple teams who are almost on the verge of elimination. The play-in tournament involves four teams from every conference, both East and West, that are seeded from seven to ten.

The seven and eight seed play a single game, and the winner secures the seventh slot in the standings. The seventh and eighth seed loser plays against the winner of the ninth and tenth seed. The winner becomes the number eight seed. The ninth and tenth seed has to win two games to go on and snag the eighth seed in the conference standings.

If two teams tie with a similar record, the determining factor is the head-to-head results which determine which team has the top seed. If the head-to-head is a tie, and one of the two teams is a division champ, the division champs take the highest seed. If the teams are in one division, the win-loss record against the division team members is used. If that does not work, the win-loss percentage against the conference teams comes into play.

This format allows fans to cheer on their beloved teams in what is a second chance for them. These teams would not have gotten the chance to make it to the playoffs in the past seasons.

When are the Playoffs Held?

In the years before, NBA playoffs would typically happen in April and end approximately early or mid-June. The 2020/21 NBA playoffs will happen between May 22nd to July 22nd, 2021. The pandemic forced the NBA to find a way of finishing the 2020 season in the summer. This caused the 2020/21 season to start on Dec 22nd, 2020.

The play-in tournament will happen within the NBA playoffs week on May 18th, 2021. This tournament will be unique and the first ever in this format. The 2020/21 season has reduced to 72 games, making every game crucial as a new way to get a playoff.

How exactly does the play-in tournament work?

Like the previous one, 2018/19 year, the entire NBA season had every team play 82 games. At each conference, there are 15 teams. This is why the NBA selected seed seven to ten for the play-in tournament as only a few games separate these positions, and by a couple of wins.

The NBA Playoff Format

The NBA playoffs as 16 teams in total, with the top 8 per conference playing. Teams per conference are seeded from 1 to 8 depending on their record. The teams that hold the best record in their respective conference becomes the overall number one seeds. The team with the second-best record becomes number 2 seeds, and so forth.

The exact format the NBA has always used will be in use. Eight teams per conference will play in the playoff like this:

  • 1 Vs. 8
  • 2 Vs. 7
  • 3 Vs.6
  • 4 Vs. 5

All the series are a best of seven-game series where the team winning for games will go on to the next round. The team that has the higher seed gets the home-court privilege. After that, three rounds happen against teams in one conference. Finally, the last team that makes it per conference gets to play in the NBA finals, i.e., conference winner against conference winner.

The winning team in 1 Vs. 8 plays the winning team of 4 Vs. 5, while the winner of 2 Vs.7 plays against the winner of 3 Vs. 6. The last two standing teams get to play in the conference finals. The last team standing after the Conference finals advances to the NBA Finals.


The higher seed team gets home-court privilege and plays its first two games in their home court. The following two games are away, then one game at home, one away, and if need be, another one away. This depends on how many games the team wins.

With home court, the game format looks like this: 2 home games, 2 Away games, 1 home Game, 1 Away Game, 1 Home Game. The team might not need to play all seven games as a team might win all four consecutive games and eliminate the need to play another game.

The best Finals record gets the home-court privilege. If the teams tie, they will check the season match up and see which of the two winning teams won the most games. If they still tie, they will check the team with the most scored points in the entire season.

This play-off structure has come under criticism for its conference parity. Most times, the Eastern conference teams that had losing records ended up qualifying for the playoffs. The Western conferences that held winning records lost them. This included the 2011, 2013 and 2015 NBA playoffs. Due to the imbalance, weak Eastern Conference teams often advance more in the playoffs.

The play-offs have not always been this way. It used to be the best of five series in the initial bracket rounds, but not they play the best of seven series per play off.