How Do the NBA Playoffs Work? A Guide

Our guide to how the NBA playoffs work, including the play-in games.

December 8, 2023

How Do the NBA Playoffs Work?

The NBA playoffs are truly a “second season,” a long slog in which every basket, every scoring run, and every controversial referee call takes on much more significance. The eventual NBA champion must win four straight best-of-seven series, which theoretically could add as many as 28 games, on top of the 82 games they already played in the regular season. And that doesn’t include the play-in games.

Indeed, the Boston Celtics played 26 games to win the NBA championship in 2008. That’s nearly one-third of a regular season.

Let’s break down how the NBA playoffs work and what it takes for teams to get to the basketball mountaintop every spring.

The Road to the Playoffs

To reach the NBA postseason, teams must be among the top 10 teams in the standings in both the Western Conference and Eastern Conference when the regular season ends. The top six teams in each conference are then seeded 1st through 6th. The teams that finished 7th through 10th.

While some teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets know they are nearly eliminated from playoff contention there are many teams still alive.

There are a handful of teams who are fighting for the lower seeds in both the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. Those teams include but are not limited to, the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, and Brooklyn Nets.

Teams such as the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, OKC Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, and a few others have legitimate hopes at being crowned champion come June.

The Play-In Tournament

This extra “round” of games was launched during the COVID pandemic season of 2019-20 because the shortened season didn’t give teams a full 82 games to qualify for the playoffs.

This is the play-in schedule every season:

  • 8th seed at 7th seed – winner becomes 7th seed in playoffs
  • 9th seed at 10th seed – loser is eliminated
  • Loser of 8-7 game hosts winner of 9-10 game – winner becomes 8th seed, loser is out

So, for example, in 2023 the Miami Heat finished 7th in the East after the regular season. The Heat lost their first play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks, but then defeated the Chicago Bulls in their second play-in game to secure the 8th seed in the playoffs. Miami eventually got all the way to the Finals before losing to the Denver Nuggets. 

Seeding and Matchups 

After the play-in tournament, and the top eight seeds determined in both conferences, the first-round pairings are:

  • 1st seed vs 8th seed
  • 2nd vs 7th
  • 3rd vs 4th
  • 4th vs 5th

Unlike the NFL, the teams are not reseeded after the first round. Once the NBA playoff bracket is set, it’s not redone in subsequent rounds.

For example, this is the bracket for the 2023 playoffs:

In the Finals, the team with the better overall record gets home court advantage. If both teams have the same record, then whichever team won the head-to-head series gets home court (normally East and West teams play each other twice). If the teams split the season series, then the next tiebreaker is the team’s record within their conference.

Series Format and Game Rules

Each series is a best-of-seven format, meaning a team has to win four games to advance to the next round. And, unlike a best-of-seven series in baseball, neither team will ever play three straight home games. This is the typical home-and-away format for each NBA playoff series:

  • Games 1 and 2: Played at higher seed
  • Games 3 and 4: Played at lower seed
  • Game 5: At higher seed
  • Game 6: At lower seed
  • Game 7: At higher seed

First-round series originally were best-of-five but expanded to best-of-seven in 2003.

There are no rules differences between the regular season and playoffs, but suspensions for technical fouls should be noted. If a players receives seven technical fouls during the playoffs, that player is suspended for the following game. A player then will be suspended for a game after two more technical fouls, i.e. their 9th tech, 11th tech, and so on.

Fun Facts in NBA Playoffs History

  • The 1995-96 Houston Rockets were the lowest seed to win the NBA title, at No. 6.
  • No team has ever swept all four series of the playoffs.
  • The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors have the best playoff record in history at 16-1.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers have the most playoff wins in history at 466.
  • Despite more than half of NBA teams reaching the playoffs, the Sacramento Kings went 16 straight years without getting to the postseason (2006-07 season through the 2021-22 season).

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Alex Valdes
Alex Valdes is Web Content Manager at Tipico North America. He has written, edited and performed user and site analysis at MoneyTalksNews, NBC Sports, MSN, Bing, MSNBC, as well as newspapers and magazines.