How are the NBA Playoff Matchups Determined?

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Thirty NBA teams each play 82 games in the regular season with one common goal: to make some noise in the playoffs and win the championship. Out of these 30, only 16 could reach the postseason tournament, and the rest could just push through with their vacation plans. That being said, have you ever asked, “How are the NBA playoff matchups determined?” Were any changes made to the format, or has it always been that way?

NBA Playoff Format ExplainedNBA Playoff Format Explained

The playoffs is the postseason tournament of the National Basketball Association, with the goal of crowning a champion. As mentioned, only 16 out of the 30 teams have a chance to achieve the goal through an interesting format that has undergone an exciting change lately.

Before the continuation of play in the 2020 Orlando bubble, the top eight teams of each conference advance outright to the playoffs. How are playoff matchups determined in the postseason? It’s pretty simple. The matchups are between No. 1 and 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. 

However, because of some complications introduced by the stoppage of NBA play during the 2020 pandemic, the league introduced a way to spice things up and make things interesting. It is called the Play-In Tournament. This short tournament determines the last two seeds– No. 7 and 8– between the teams that finish in the 7th through 10th positions in the regular season standings.

Here’s how the tournament works:

  • In each conference, the teams that finish in 7th and 8th place face off in a single game. The winner of this game becomes the 7th seed in the playoffs.
  • The teams finishing 9th and 10th place also play a single game. The loser of this game is eliminated from playoff contention.
  • The loser of the 7th vs. 8th game and the winner of the 9th vs. 10th game then face each other in a single game. The winner of this game secures the 8th seed in the playoffs.

In summary, the Play-In Tournament allows teams that finish just outside the traditional playoff spots to have an opportunity to earn a place in the postseason. It adds an extra layer of excitement and competitiveness to the end of the regular season while giving a chance to teams who may have just peaked late because of injuries to key players.

After the field is set, the three-round format in each conference continues, with the fourth being the Finals. Each series is decided by a seven-game struggle, which means the first team to win four games advance to the next round. 

Take a look at this NBA playoffs bracket to have a better idea of the series’ flow.

NBA 2023 Play In Tournament Bracket

Photo: NBA.com

The winners of the matchups between the 1 vs. 8 and 4 vs. 5 advance to the second round, to which they begin another seven-game series. The same can be said for the 2 vs. 7 and 3 vs. 6 matchups. The winners of the second round then advance to the Conference Finals, where the victors figure in a seven-game series to determine the NBA champion.

In the championship series, the NBA 2-3-2 format was used in 1985 to lessen cross-country travel, but it was later restored to the 2-2-1-1-1 format in 2014.

How are the NBA Playoff Matchups DeterminedHow are the NBA Playoff Matchups Determined?

The NBA playoffs are about finding a champion out of the league’s two conferences– the Eastern and Western Conferences. Even though each Conference is further divided into divisions, it is a mere logistical formality. So, how are NBA playoff teams determined

Determining the Playoff Bracket

The NBA playoffs bracket is determined based on the team’s regular season performances or win-loss record. The eight best teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences move on to the playoffs. However, since 2020, the league has incorporated a play-in tournament for teams in the 7th to 10th positions to determine the last two seeds.

The playoff bracket is essentially the pairings or the matchups between teams. As mentioned, the 1st seed draws the eighth seed, the 2nd vs. 7th, 3rd vs. 6th, and 4th vs. 5th, with the higher seeds owning home-court advantage. “Home court advantage” means the higher-seeded team plays one extra home game and is in a pretty good position, especially if the series goes the distance.

NBA Playoff Seeding

The field is already set as soon as the Play-In tournament determines the 7th and 8th seeds in each conference. The NBA playoff seeding refers to the process of assigning a specific rank or position to each team that qualifies for the playoffs based on their regular season performance. The seeding determines the matchups and the bracket structure for the playoff tournament.

In the NBA, playoff seeding is determined by the teams’ win-loss records during the regular season. In this regard, winning a division is no longer necessary. The teams with the best records are awarded higher seeds, while those with lower records receive lower seeds. The higher seed is considered more favorable as it grants home-court advantage, meaning the team plays more games on their home court than on the road.

As an example, consider the 2023 Playoffs run by the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets have the best record in the Western Conference, so they are seeded No. 1. They drew a matchup against the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, which came out of the Play-In tournament, winning against the OKC Thunder to secure the last playoff seed.

After winning this series, the Nuggets went on to take the Phoenix Suns in the second round. The Suns took care of business against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. Denver dispatched the Suns in six games to punch a ticket to the Western Conference Finals. 

Their opponent was the Los Angeles Lakers, a seventh-seeded team that defeated the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and the No. 6 Golden State Warriors in the second round. Ultimately, the Nuggets swept the Lakers to reach the Finals, where they also won against the Eastern Conference champs Miami Heat, in five games.

The Denver Nuggets have a home-court advantage in all these series matchups because of their regular season win-loss record. The only scenario where they would lose home-court advantage is if the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks advance to the Finals since they have a better record than the Nuggets. Since the Bucks were knocked out by Miami in the first round, Denver secures home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Conference Standing

The conference standing ranks teams within their respective conferences based on their performances during the regular season. This ensures that only teams from the same conference are matched up in the first three rounds before the NBA Finals.

Conference standing provides a snapshot of how each team in the NBA performs within its respective conference. It serves as a crucial metric for assessing a team’s success, determining playoff qualification, and influencing playoff matchups and advantages.

Has the NBA Playoffs Always Been Best of 7Has the NBA Playoffs Always Been Best of 7?

Historically, the NBA Finals have always been played in a seven-game series, but the previous rounds have undergone several format changes. This is because the league has either expanded or scaled down, and both scenarios may affect changes in the Playoffs format.

For example, in 1984, the league expanded the playoff field from 12 teams to 16. From that point, the first-round series was changed to a best-of-five, but later to an exclusively seven-game series format in 2003. 

In the 1950s, early playoff rounds were played in best-of-three while the Division Finals (now the Conference Finals) were played in a best-of-five starting in 1955 and a best-of-seven in 1958. The Conference Semifinals (then called Division Semifinals), or the second round, were played in a seven-game-format since 1968.

The reason for the change to an NBA Best of 7 series is simple. More games mean more money to the team and those working for them. For example, the Golden State Warriors reportedly made $130 million in 11 playoff games in 2018. That’s an average of roughly $11.8 million in ticket revenue in every playoff home game, which is a lot of money!

Wrapping Things Up: How are the NBA Playoff Matchups Determined?

The NBA playoffs have the tagline “Where Amazing Happens,” and most of the time, they’re not lying. The games are indeed the highest level of basketball you can watch, and along with an often ludicrous display of athleticism, it’s always fun to watch an NBA playoff game.

If you’re an NBA fan, you can personally attest to this, but have you ever wondered, “How are the NBA playoff matchups determined today and in the years past?” During the last four decades, the NBA used a 16-team playoff format with higher seeds earning home court advantage over the lower seeds based on the regular season standings. However, since 2020, the NBA introduced the Play-In Tournament, where the 7th to 10th teams in each conference play a short tourney to determine the 7th and 8th seeds. 

After the Play-In, the NBA Playoffs bracket is now set, with the 1st seed taking on the 8th seed, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. The winner of the 1 vs. 8 and 4 vs. 5 matchups proceed to the second round; the same thing happens in the 2 vs. 7 and 3 vs. 6 matchups. The winners of the second round move to the Conference Finals, to which the victors of each conference, battle in a seven-game Finals series to determine the NBA champions.

 We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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