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It's LeBron vs. Steph in the NBA's 1st play-in tournament

CBC Sports' daily newsletter explains the NBA's play-in tournament, including who's involved, why it's happening and what to expect.

Superstar showdown highlights 8-team, 6-game event

Steph Curry and LeBron James have gone from Finals matchups to the play-in tournament. (Harry How/Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

There's a new wrinkle to the NBA season

The regular season is done, but the playoffs have yet to begin. In between, the league is introducing the play-in tournament.

Here's everything you need to know about an interesting week ahead:

Four teams in each conference are involved. Teams ranked seventh through 10th all must win their way into the playoffs this season. Intriguingly, that includes the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who tumbled all the way to seventh thanks to long-term injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Also in the West field are Steph Curry's Warriors (No. 8), Memphis (No. 9) and San Antonio (No. 10). The East features Boston (No. 7), Washington (No. 8), Indiana (No. 9) and Charlotte (No. 10).

That list includes four of the five clubs to have won at least five championships. The main reason the play-in tournament exists at all is to help the NBA replenish lost revenue from the pandemic by inserting more meaningful games in the schedule to sell to broadcasters.

Having flagship franchises like the Lakers and Celtics featured is a win for everyone — except James, who recently said that the creator of the play-ins should be fired. No point airing your grievances until something directly affects you, right?

The format is borrowed from curling. Not officially, but if you're familiar with curling's Page playoffs then you'll understand the play-in tournament. In short, the seventh and eighth seeds require only one win to reach the playoffs proper while the ninth- and 10th-place teams need two.

We'll use the West as an example: tomorrow night, the Lakers and Warriors will face off, with the winner headed straight to face the second-seeded Phoenix Suns. The loser then takes on the winner of a Grizzlies-Spurs matchup to determine the final playoff team, set to play the No. 1 Utah Jazz. In the East, No. 1 Philadelphia and No. 2 Brooklyn await the play-in victors.

Wait, so LeBron and Curry have to go through each other just to make the playoffs? Pretty much, although the loser will be favoured to beat either the Grizzlies or Spurs. Still, arguably the two biggest stars in the league, who faced each other in four straight Finals, are resigned to the play-in tournament just three years later. James and Davis are both back healthy for the Lakers. Curry enjoyed a supernova season, winning the league's scoring title while carrying an otherwise underwhelming Golden State squad.

Celtics-Wizards is the marquee East battle. Boston made the conference final in three of the past four seasons and was supposed to be a title contender on the backs of young all-stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Instead, the Celtics never quite put things together and now Brown is out for the season. Washington struggled mightily through the first half of the season while it battled a COVID outbreak, but caught fire late as Russell Westbrook broke the career triple-double record.

Why aren't the Raptors still playing? When it became clear that the team's only hope of reaching the playoffs was through the play-in, the organization appeared to make a decision to prioritize its draft pick instead of winding up as first-round fodder for a true title contender. For a team that still believes in its core, the choice was understandable. That meant sitting key players like Kyle Lowry under the guise of "rest" to prevent a late-season run of success. Toronto may have been able to win its way to the seventh seed. Instead, it'll settle for the seventh-best draft lottery odds.

Canadian basketball fans will still see some familiar faces. Former Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas are set to square off in the Spurs-Grizzlies game, where Canada's Dillon Brooks may lead Memphis in scoring. Marc Gasol, a 2019 champion with the Raptors, comes off the bench for the Lakers. Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren is an assistant on Nick Nurse's Team Canada staff, while Canadian and ex-Raptor Oshae Brissett has impressed in meaningful minutes for Indiana.

Toronto Raptors end season out of playoffs for 1st time since 2013

7 months ago
Duration 5:30
The Toronto Raptors are facing some big off-season questions after missing the NBA playoffs for the first time in eight years. Both star guard Kyle Lowry and team president Masai Ujiri are free agents and their potential departures could spell the end of an era. 5:30

Quickly...

The Canadian government is getting involved in a boxer's quest to reach Tokyo. Mandy Bujold, an 11-time national champion, was denied entry to the Olympics when the pandemic forced the qualification period to switch to an 11-month timeframe in which Bujold was pregnant and postpartum. On Monday night, CBC Sports' Devin Heroux obtained a letter written by federal minister Steven Guilbeault urging the IOC to reconsider its decision. "Making the decision to become a mother in 2018 should not penalize Ms. Bujold from having the opportunity to compete in Olympic Games," he wrote. Guilbeault is the latest in a list of big names to back Bujold, following social-media pleas from Lennox Lewis and Billie Jean King. Bujold, who consistently held a top-four worldwide ranking prior to her pregnancy, is now taking her case to the top sport court in a last-ditch effort to compete in Tokyo. Her ideal plan, she says, is to win a medal, then retire. Read more about Guilbeault's letter and Bujold's case in Heroux's story here.

Brad Marchand broke a long-standing Bruins record held by Bobby Orr. His goal 39 seconds into OT in Game 2 against Washington last night arrived one tick faster than — you guessed it — Orr's famous flying Stanley-Cup winning-goal in 1970. Something about that just doesn't feel right. You can watch both overtimes side-by-side here. Elsewhere, Carolina and Colorado took care of business to open their respective series against Nashville and St. Louis. And while we wait for the Canadian playoffs to finally begin, CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo looks at some guys you just can't help but cheer for to win a Stanley Cup. Spoiler alert: Marchand is not included.

And finally...

Kyle Lowry gave a heartfelt answer about missing Toronto to a CBC Kids News reporter. He also discussed his pending free agency (his priorities are family, money, years and winning), his age (35, but he feels like "a young spring chicken") and more in his season-ending press conference. But Lowry's best answer came when he told CBC Kids News' Arjun Ram that he thought about Raptors fans every day, and he even missed the DVP and Gardiner. Watch the full response here.

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