The Eastern Conference completed its first-ever play-in tournament, and sadly, it turned out to be anticlimactic. The home teams didn't just win all three games, they utterly dominated them. After Tuesday's two games had a combined 45-point margin of victory, the Washington Wizards continued that home team dominance with an incredible 142-115 victory over the Indiana Pacers to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal led the way with 43 combined points and 19 combined assists, but the story of this game was their performance on the NBA's most valuable shots. Washington scored an incredible 72 points in the paint, and after shooting only 3 of 21 from behind the arc against Boston, they made 50 percent of their 3-pointers on Thursday in shooting 14 of 28 from long range. Had they not let up in garbage time, they likely would have broken the record Indiana set on Tuesday for most points in a play-in game with 144.
Those same Pacers will now have to look at what went wrong both in this game and in this season as they attempt to pick up the pieces of a disappointing season. The Pacers had not missed the playoffs since 2015, but now, they'll return to the lottery and attempt to recapture the magic that had them in the postseason over each of the previous five seasons. If tonight's loss proved anything, though, it's that the Pacers have a long way to go. That's where we'll kick off the takeaways from tonight's game.
1. Is this it for Nate Bjorkgren?
Nate Bjorkgren's seat was already hot before the play-in round. Multiple reports suggested that he struggled to build relationships with his players, but a run into the playoffs could have been proof that his basketball acumen was worthy of a second chance next season. Tonight did not help his cause on this front.
The Wizards average 53 points in the paint per game. They scored 72 tonight due in large part to a somewhat inexplicable defensive gameplan from the Pacers. Rather than protect the basket at all costs, they closed out hard on poor shooters and had their big men defend closer to the level of the screen rather than drop back to defend possible layups and dunks. The Wizards took advantage in ways that they shouldn't have been able to. They played the Pacers three times this season and averaged over 139 points per game in those matchups. The Wizards are a good offense, but nobody is that good. They thrived here because the Pacers didn't adjust their gameplan.
That wasn't Bjorkgren's only major mistake. At the beginning of the second quarter, he used a lineup featuring five reserves, an extreme rarity in postseason play, and a tactic that was especially dangerous for Indiana given its injuries. The Pacers were down one when they went to that lineup. They were down eight two minutes and 55 seconds later when Domantas Sabonis returned to the game. By that point, Washington had gained all of the momentum it needed and was midway through a 16-0 run that blew this game wide open.
The Pacers have played well offensively under Bjorkgren. They've dealt with myriad injuries, and surely, their defense would have been better with Myles Turner tonight. But these are very damaging tactical mistakes for an elimination game, and when paired with Bjorkgren's tenuous status in the locker room, there's plenty of reason to believe that he's not going to be back next season.
2. Who will play center for the Wizards against Joel Embiid?
Having three playable centers isn't the worst thing for a matchup against Embiid's 76ers. You're probably going to need all 18 of those fouls against him. But balancing Alex Len, Robin Lopez and Daniel Gafford continues to be a challenge for Scott Brooks, and in the playoffs, one of the most important traits a team can have is confidence in its identity. They need to know who their best players are.
Len has started every game since March 13, but has a minus-1.8 net rating in that span. The Wizards are winning the Lopez minutes (plus-3.7) and dominating the Gafford minutes (plus-7.1) in that span. Len played 13 minutes to Lopez's six on Thursday, and Gafford, despite shooting 80 percent from the field with 18 rebounds and seven blocks, played only 43 minutes in the play-in games combined.
Gafford is the smallest of the three, and would probably therefore struggle against Embiid's bulk. Lopez is probably the best equipped of the three to defend him, and at this point, Len should probably be a "break glass in case of emergency" option. Brooks just hasn't shown a willingness to do that, and it could cost the Wizards against the 76ers. If they are going to have any chance of toppling the No. 1 seed, they are going to have to put their best foot forward.
3. What are we learning from the play-in tournament?
We've now played five play-in games, six if you include the one that took place in the Orlando bubble last season. The favorite won has won all six of them, including five wins so far from teams in their own building. The three Eastern Conference games we've seen thus far have been decided by 72 points combined. The Western Conference games have been more competitive through the final score, but featured heavy runs in both directions rather than sustainably even play.
Lakers-Warriors alone is proof of concept for the play-in round. It works and it's sticking around. But perhaps the lesson we're learning thus far is that something resembling the four-game maximum distance between teams in the play-in round used last year in Orlando might be needed to prevent blowouts in the play-in round moving forward. Charlotte clearly wasn't ready for postseason basketball. San Antonio has been free-falling for weeks, but snuck in because, well, it's not that hard to be the sixth-worst team in a conference.
The expanded playoff field undoubtedly motivated teams down the stretch to remain competitive rather than tank. That's a positive, but if the league wants these games to be competitive, it might have to take steps to ensure that teams that make it into the play-in tournament actually deserve to be there.