How the Spurs can qualify for the NBA’s play-in tournament

San Antonio has six games left to clinch second-straight berth in tournament

Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson (1) drives to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Zach Collins (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 30, 2022, in San Antonio. (Nick Wagner, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – Wednesday night’s 112-111 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was tough to swallow. Keldon Johnson had a clean look at a game-winning layup in the final seconds, but saw it rim out as time expired, and the Spurs dropped from 10th to 11th in the NBA’s Western Conference standings.

But San Antonio still has a solid chance to make the play-in tournament for the second-straight season. How can they do it? Well, let’s start by breaking down the basics.

WHAT IS THE PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT?

Last year, the NBA expanded their traditional eight-team playoff format to give more teams a legitimate shot of qualifying by creating a play-in tournament that featured the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th-ranked NBA teams in each conference at the conclusion of the regular season. Here’s a brief summary of how it works:

Game NumberMatchupResult
1Team No. 10 at Team No. 9Loser Eliminated, Winner stays alive
2Team No. 8 at Team No. 7Winner secures 7th seed, Loser faces winner of Game 1
3Winner of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2Winner secures 8th seed, Loser eliminated

Following the conclusion of the tournament, the traditional playoff format takes effect, with the No. 8 seed taking on the No. 1 seed in a seven-game playoff series. No. 7 would then face No. 2, No. 6 faces No. 3 and No. 5 faces No. 4.

To qualify for the play-in tournament, all San Antonio has to do is finish at least 10th in the Western Conference. The Spurs did this last year, but fell in the 9/10 match up to the Grizzlies, 100-96. Here’s a look at the current standings:

WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

TeamRecordGames Back
7. Minnesota43-34--
8. LA Clippers37-395.5
9. New Orleans33-439.5
10. LA Lakers31-4411
----OUT OF PLAY-IN--------------
11. San Antonio31-4511.5

Only three teams are still alive for the final two spots in the play-in tournament: the Spurs, Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans. New Orleans defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 117-107 late Wednesday night and gained ground on both the Spurs and Lakers, with six games left in their regular season.

The good news is that the Spurs own head-to-head tiebreakers over the Lakers and Pelicans. San Antonio and Los Angeles have split their four regular season games, but the Spurs have already clinched a better record than the Lakers against Western Conference opponents. San Antonio recently clinched their season series with the Pelicans thanks to their 107-103 victory over New Orleans on Saturday afternoon.

As a result, if San Antonio finishes with the same overall record as either the Pelicans or the Lakers, the Spurs will be ranked higher than that team. If all three finish the regular season with the same overall record, San Antonio would move all the way up to the No. 9 seed and would host the opening-round play-in tournament game at the AT&T Center against the No. 10 seed. If they finish as the No. 10 seed, they will play a road game against the No. 9 seed.

Either way, if San Antonio does qualify for the play-in tournament, they will then have to win back-to-back elimination games to advance to the playoffs. If they accomplish that feat, the Spurs then enter as the No. 8 seed and will face the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.

It’s a daunting task, but San Antonio still has a lot of work to do before they can even think about those scenarios.

REMAINING SCHEDULE

SpursLakersPelicans
----at Utah - Thursday, March 31----
vs. Portland - Friday, April 1vs. New Orleans - Friday, April 1at LA Lakers - Friday, April 1
vs. Portland - Sunday, April 3vs. Denver - Sunday, April 3at LA Clippers - Sunday, April 3
at Denver - Tuesday, April 5at Phoenix - Tuesday, April 5at Sacramento - Tuesday, April 5
at Minnesota - Thursday, April 7at Golden State - Thursday, April 7vs. Portland - Thursday, April 7
vs. Golden State - Saturday, April 9vs. OKC - Friday, April 8at Memphis - Saturday, April 9
at Dallas - Sunday, April 10at Denver - Sunday, April 10vs. Golden State - Sunday, April 10

Both San Antonio and New Orleans have six games left in the regular season, while Los Angeles has seven. The Spurs have three home games left, the same amount as the Lakers and one more than the Pelicans. Two of San Antonio’s final six games come against teams with worse overall records: both home games against the Trail Blazers on Friday and Sunday of this week.

New Orleans has three games against foes with worse records: two road games against the Lakers and Sacramento Kings, and a home game against the Trail Blazers on April 7. The Lakers play only one team with a worse record than theirs -- the Thunder -- on April 8.

Of the 19 combined games remaining in the regular season for these three teams, 12 will be played against teams currently ranked in the top eight of the Western Conference. With playoff positioning amongst the top six teams still very much up for grabs, it remains to be seen whether any of the playoff-bound teams will rest their starters towards the end of the regular season.

GAMES TO WATCH

  • Lakers at Jazz, Thursday, March 31 - As reported Wednesday evening, LeBron James will not play against Utah on Thursday night. The Lakers superstar rolled his ankle during a devastating loss to the Pelicans this past Sunday and has returned home to Los Angeles. The sting of San Antonio’s loss to Memphis would be softened significantly if the Jazz can defeat a shorthanded Lakers squad on Thursday. Should that happen, the Spurs would again move up into final Play-In position courtesy of their tiebreaker over LA.
  • Lakers vs. Pelicans, Friday, April 1 - Lakers star Anthony Davis has been sidelined with an MCL sprain/foot sprain since Feb. 15, but he has been eyeing a return to the lineup on Friday against the Pelicans or Sunday against the Nuggets. Regardless of whether he plays, Friday night’s match up between Los Angeles and New Orleans will go a long way towards determining the final standings. A Pelicans victory would likely secure the inside track to the 9th seed, while a Lakers win would put pressure on the Spurs to keep pace and keep New Orleans within striking distance.
  • Spurs’ two-game homestand against Portland - With their last four regular season games against playoff-bound teams, San Antonio has to make hay at home against the Trail Blazers. After their loss to the Pelicans, Portland is 27-49 overall, 13th in the Western Conference. If the Spurs can sweep this homestand, and get some help from Utah, New Orleans and Denver, they could have a three-game cushion over the Lakers with four games left to play. The alternative likely means San Antonio faces an uphill battle against some of the NBA’s hottest teams.
  • Warriors at Spurs, Saturday, April 9 - Warriors superstar Stephen Curry is out for the remainder of the regular season with a left foot sprain, and the Spurs have already taken advantage of his absence with their recent 110-108 victory over Golden State on March 20. They will likely need to do it again. The No. 6 Nuggets and No. 7 Timberwolves will still be jockeying for playoff positioning when they host the Spurs on April 5 and 7. If San Antonio can sweep Portland and get some help from Lakers and Pelicans opponents, this April 9 tilt against the Warriors at the AT&T Center could end up deciding whether the Spurs will qualify for the Play-In Tournament.

About the Author:

Andrew has covered athletics of all levels for more than five years and is dedicated to shining a spotlight on local San Antonio athletes and their stories.