MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) – Boston coach Brad Stevens has used his experience coaching Butler for back-to-back NCAA Championship games to prepare his Celtics.
Steve Kerr is set to play double NBA MVP Stephen Curry almost every minute if that’s what it takes for the Golden State Warriors to clinch a victory.
This is not how NBA players and coaches normally prepare for championship races. Yes, it’s the NBA playoffs, but it’s not the playoffs. It’s the league’s new play-in tournament.
LeBron James may not have been in something like this since high school. For others, it feels like March craziness.
“It’s exciting,” said Spurs guard Dejounte Murray. “It’s a closer chance to have the opportunity to make the playoffs. So win or come home. … You win and you move on, you lose, you go home.
Just ask the Charlotte Hornets, whose the season ended abruptly Tuesday night in the first NBA play-in game after tripping early and being pounded by the Indiana Pacers in what looked like a first-round mismatch.
Welcome to the NBA mini version NCAA Tournament: Eight teams chasing four spots.
“We still have a chance to make the playoffs,” said Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant. “We know what’s at stake. You just have to go out, run the business. Two games, one at a time.”
Stevens went through survival and advance tournaments with great success: he took Butler to the NCAA Championship game in 2010 and 2011. It’s not exactly like those days as a college coach, but close enough to that Stephens draw a parallel.
“It’s kind of like the NCAA tournament in terms of speed of execution,” Stevens said before his Celtics secured the seventh seed with a 118-100 victory over Washington Wizards. “We haven’t been in this situation very much.”
Kerr approaches those play-in games like a one-game playoff game, much like a wild card or a baseball playoff tie-breaker. This makes it possible to play the newly crowned champion every second – not something he would do during the regular season.
“It’s an option now because we’re in the thick of it and every game is crucial,” Kerr said. “But that’s about the limit, I would hesitate to play it much more than that. He has so much on his shoulders. It’s not easy to play for 40 minutes as he plays in particular.
James might still be crazy about the new NBA play-in format, but he and the Defend NBA Champions are in the midst of one of the biggest showdowns on Wednesday night.
Kerr loves the format even though his Warriors could end up missing the playoffs. Kerr thinks it made the final month of the regular season a lot more interesting.
“We had some really interesting mini battles in the standings, with the teams trying to stay out of the 7-8 play-in,” Kerr said. “So you had kind of a mini pennant race going on for fifth and sixth.”
San Antonio would already be sitting at home without the new format.
Instead, 10th seeded Spurs have a chance to keep playing as long as they continue to win from Wednesday night at No.9 in Memphis.
Spurs goaltender Lonnie Walker IV, in his third season, has never been in this situation with the added benefit of trying to make the playoffs. His varsity team, Miami, lost their only NCAA tournament game of their 2018 season.
“So I’m starving, I’m hungry, I’m excited,” Walker said. “I am ready to play with my team and get the W.”
The NBA experimented with a play-in format last summer after the restart of the season cut short by the pandemic. Memphis and Portland met for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Portland only needed one game to eliminate the Grizzlies.
Murray has been in enough NBA playoff games that the Spurs guard didn’t think the experience of playing a single elimination event like the NCAA tournament, high school or the AAU could help.
“It’s the NBA, those two levels can never compare to this level,” Murray said. “I’ve been to the playoffs before, I know the atmosphere. I know the win or come home situation.
Grizzlies goaltender Dillon Brooks put it into perspective. It’s not a seven-game series, it’s just survive and move on “or go to Cabo, as they say”.
AP Basketball editor Tim Reynolds and AP Sports writers Janie McCauley, Kyle Hightower and AP freelance writer Raul Dominguez contributed to this report.
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