A total of six teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences are able to say that they officially made the 2024 NBA playoffs. As for the other two spots in both conferences, they will be decided over the course of the next few days via the NBA play-in tournament, a spectacle that has brought more competition and a lot more thrill to the backend of the playoff picture every season. This year, the NBA play-in tournament features the league's reigning MVP in Joel Embiid, the reigning Eastern Conference champions in the Miami Heat, and two of the last four championship organizations in the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.

After entering the 2023-24 season with high title aspirations, the Lakers and Warriors are both in danger of seeing their seasons come to an end without a postseason berth. Winning the very first NBA In-Season Tournament hasn't guaranteed anything for LeBron James and the Lakers, and the four-time championship core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Steve Kerr may just be a thing of the past at this point given their struggles all season.

The NBA play-in tournament will be very telling, not only to how this year's playoffs will ultimately unfold but also to what the future holds for James and Curry, two of the league's most iconic stars.

The stage is set for four very intriguing initial play-in games, with two more set to follow that will be determined based on what happens both Tuesday and Wednesday night. The Western Conference will kick things off on Tuesday, as the Lakers will once again face off against the New Orleans Pelicans, the team they beat in the final game of the regular season to clinch the 8-seed. In doing so, Los Angeles knocked the Pelicans out of contention for the 6-seed, putting them in the NBA play-in tournament.

The second game on Tuesday night involves two bitter rivals separated by just about 86 miles: the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings. In a rematch of last year's first round matchup that went seven games, the Kings will be looking to extract revenge against what has become the league's dynasty of the last decade.

More storylines follow on Wednesday with the Eastern Conference. Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers will take on Jimmy Butler and the Heat, a rivalry between Butler and his former organization. Then there are the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks, two teams that have a chance to play the role of underdogs this year, possibly pulling the unthinkable should they give the 1-seeded Boston Celtics a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs.

The NBA play-in tournament is here, and all four initial matchups bring a very unique perspective to the table. In fact, each team has at least one X-factor that could shift the balance of power in their favor. Here is a breakdown of what exactly each team needs to do in order to come away with a victory in their play-in game.

Índice
  1. (8) Los Angeles Lakers at (7) New Orleans Pelicans 
  2. (10) Golden State Warriors at (9) Sacramento Kings
  3. (8) Miami Heat at (7) Philadelphia 76ers
  4. (10) Atlanta Hawks at (9) Chicago Bulls

(8) Los Angeles Lakers at (7) New Orleans Pelicans 

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) fight for position during the second half at Smoothie King Center.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off their 124-108 road win over the Pelicans to close out the regular season, the Lakers certainly enter this 7-seed vs. 8-seed game with momentum. Los Angeles has won 11 of their last 14 games, and they have done so with LeBron James leading the way at 39 years old. Who knows how much longer James has, but the one thing that's certain is that he is going to give it his all on Tuesday night. In New Orleans, the return of Brandon Ingram gives what has been a red-hot offense the extra juice it needs to succeed.

They met in the semifinals of the first-ever in-season tournament, and they met to close out the regular season. Now, they will meet yet again with the 7-seed in the Western Conference and a date with the defending champion Denver Nuggets on the line.

Lakers X-factor: Control pace of game

There are a few factors that make the Lakers a very dangerous team in the Western Conference. Obviously, LeBron and Anthony Davis doing their thing at the highest level possible creates a lot of fear in their opponents. The fact that they get to the free-throw line at a higher rate than any other team in the league is also advantageous to the Lakers in a play-in scenario.

However, the key to them finding success against the Pelicans lies in their ability to control not just their pace, but that of New Orleans' as well. In addition to getting to the free-throw line, the Lakers must find ways to take advantage of the lapses the Pelicans have on offense. Specifically, pushing the tempo in transition off of turnovers and wearing their opponents out in transition immediately gives the Lakers an edge.

Not only will this impact Zion Williamson and his overall effectiveness as the game progresses in the second half, but the Lakers will really be able to test Ingram's endurance after he missed over three weeks of games due to a knee injury. Although they can be great on defense, the Pelicans are vulnerable when they aren't able to gather themselves in the halfcourt. James, D'Angelo Russell, and Austin Reaves must keep their foot on the gas pedal and force the Pelicans to take premature timeouts in order to grab another critical road win.

Pelicans X-factor: Defensive intensity

The Lakers are going to push the pace. They have had success doing so against the Pelicans this season, and they finished the year ranking fourth in pace of play. The Pelicans have to be ready for a fast-paced game that will almost look like a track meet at times.

Luckily, the Pelicans' last two games of the regular season have prepared them for this scenario. In addition to facing the Lakers in the final game of the year, the Pels also played the Warriors in a game they won 114-109. While they shot the lights out of the ball, going 20-of-38 from three-point range, New Orleans won this game against Golden State by playing high intensity and energetic defense.

The Warriors turned the ball over 16 times in this game, leading to 25 points for the Pelicans. Some of the turnovers were Golden State's fault, but a lot of their miscues were due to the Pelicans swarming them and staying attached as soon as the Warriors crossed half-court. It was clear to see that game meant a lot to New Orleans, and their entire bench was constantly getting up in order to feed energy onto the court.

This is the type of intensity that will allow the Pelicans' defense to thrive against the Lakers, who can be turnover prone, and this is what will make the Pelicans a legitimate threat in the actual playoffs.

(10) Golden State Warriors at (9) Sacramento Kings

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles the ball next to Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) in the second quarter during game six of the 2023 NBA playoffs at the Chase Center.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors and Kings may just be the marquee matchup of the NBA play-in tournament. Steph Curry vs. De'Aaron Fox. Draymond Green vs. Domantas Sabonis. Steve Kerr vs. Mike Brown.

What else could you really want if you are a basketball fan?

If it weren't for Curry's 50-point heroics in Game 7 of last season's first-round series, the Kings would have been the ones to advance in the playoffs. Kevon Looney was also massive in this series against Sacramento, as he had 11 points and 21 rebounds in that Game 7 against Sabonis. The Warriors' big man always plays well against the Kings, and he has transitioned to a new role coming off the bench. Looney is ready to make a huge impact whenever his name is called.

The Kings still have Fox, Sabonis, and Keegan Murray, but not having Kevin Huerter or Malik Monk is going to drastically change the Warriors' approach to this game on defense. Monk always puts up big numbers against the Warriors, which is why Sacramento will need to find immediate secondary production on offense if they are to have a chance against their rivals.

Warriors X-factor: Draymond Green

Look, I know what you are thinking right now, and many of you will roll your eyes at this after what happened last year. Just 363 days ago, Green stomped on Sabonis' chest, resulting in his ejection from Game 2 against the Kings and a one-game suspension for Game 3.

Whether you hate him or love him, there is no denying that Draymond is the heart-and-soul of the Warriors' defense. Not to mention, he is one of the best overall defenders this league has when he is locked in and not focusing on his extracurricular activities on the court. The Warriors need Green to be focused on the goal at hand, as well as be the wall to hold Sabonis off the glass.

Since moving Green to the center position, the Warriors have become a much better defensive team, and they are faster when pushing the pace in transition. Golden State has done a fantastic job defending Sabonis this season, allowing the All-Star snub to average 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. These are down from his 19.4 points and 13.7 rebounds per game during the regular season.

If Green and the Warriors can slow down Sabonis, especially on the glass, they will be able to control this game from the opening tip. From there, it all comes down to whether Golden State can hit their shots in the second half while maintaining possession of the basketball.

Kings X-factor: Harrison Barnes

Fox is going to do his thing on offense, as he always does against the Warriors, and the Kings are hopeful that Sabonis will be able to find success against a smaller, undersized team. However, without Monk and Huerter, the spotlight now goes to the Kings secondary talents like veteran wing Harrison Barnes.

The Warriors have always done a great job containing Keegan Murray and forcing him into bad shots, which is why the third guy for Sacramento must be Barnes on Tuesday night.

In four games against the Warriors this season, Barnes has averaged 18.8 points per game while shooting 53.8 percent from three-point range. These four games were highlighted by a 39-point, seven made triples night for Barnes on January 25, the last time these two teams met. Both of these marks were season-highs for the 31-year-old.

Against his former team on Tuesday, Barnes is going to have to splice together another solid shooting night to give the Kings the offensive advantage in this one. If Barnes doesn't show up, the Warriors may just pull away in the second half with a double-digit victory in Golden 1 Center.

(8) Miami Heat at (7) Philadelphia 76ers

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22), Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) box-out during free throw during the second half at Kaseya Center.
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

There is only one play-in game that truly matters in the Eastern Conference, and that involves the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers taking on one another for the 7-seed on Wednesday night. A classic of strength versus poise, the 76ers will be looking to use Joel Embiid's size and skill to destroy the Heat offensively. Then again, there is no coach in this league that is better than Erik Spoelstra when it comes to devising a plan to stop the best of the best. Spoelstra knows what it takes to win at this juncture, which is why Miami may not be an easy opponent for the Sixers.

The Heat and 76ers have quickly turned into a rivalry forged during the playoffs, and this is because of Jimmy Butler's mindset every time he sees Philadelphia on the schedule. The Sixers chose Tobias Harris over him a few years ago, and this is something Butler will never forget.

Although they have been banged up, the Heat are the reigning Eastern Conference champions, and they earned their spot in the playoffs via the NBA play-in tournament last season. Claiming the 7-seed and going on another deep postseason run wouldn't be a shock in the slightest.

Heat X-factor: Miami's attack on Tyrese Maxey

Last season, the Heat earned the 8-seed in the East, defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, and advanced all the way to the NBA Finals. They were able to do so not only due to Butler's leadership on offense but also because of the whole team's effort on defense. The Heat have always been known to be a tough-minded defensive organization, which is why they will need to bring this same grit on Wednesday night against the 76ers.

Bam Adebayo is going to do his best against Embiid. At the end of the day, the reigning league MVP is going to get his points and simply can't be contained. This is why the Heat will need to focus their attention elsewhere, specifically on Tyrese Maxey. The Heat and 76ers have met four times this season. After scoring just 12 points in their first meeting, Maxey has owned Miami since, averaging 32.2 points, 9.3 assists, and 7.7 rebounds in his last three games against the Heat. The young star has also shot 45.2 percent from the floor against the Heat this year.

With Embiid healthy and doing his thing, the Heat must find a way to stop Maxey from running loose, especially in transition. If they let Maxey have his way and allow him to drive downhill towards the rim, Miami is in for a long night.

76ers X-factor: Kelly Oubre Jr.

The 76ers have won eight straight games heading into the NBA play-in tournament, and they have a 31-8 record this year when Embiid plays. He is their leader and the catalyst of their offense. Embiid is the 76ers best chance of claiming the 7-seed and possibly upsetting the 2-seeded New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.

However, the secondary players on the Sixers roster are going to have to continue to step up in more ways than just scoring. This is why Kelly Oubre Jr. is an essential part of their potential success. Oubre can create scoring opportunities for himself either on the perimeter or on the drive, plus he is a very underrated rebounder.

The veteran wing finished the regular season by recording at least five rebounds in seven of his last eight games, and Oubre registered at least seven boards in three out of four games against Miami. Whether it is tipping the ball out on offense or grabbing a rebound from Adebayo on defense, Oubre must be a factor if the 76ers are to find success against the Heat.

(10) Atlanta Hawks at (9) Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) and Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) battle for control of the ball during the second half at State Farm Arena.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There is not much to say about the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. These are two teams with losing records that will have a chance to earn an actual playoff spot should either of them win two straight road games in the NBA play-in tournament. Who knows, maybe they will spark a magical run like the Heat did a season ago. Then again, the Hawks and Bulls both have glaring weaknesses.

The Hawks have been a very inconsistent offensive team all season. Their backcourt duo of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray is talented, yet they continue to bat heads with one another over who gets the ball late in games, leading to confusion and a slew of turnovers with the game on the line. Injuries have also plagued the Hawks. Saddiq Bey has a torn ACL, Onyeka Okongwu had toe surgery recently, and Jalen Johnson is out again due to an ankle sprain.

Not much is different for the Bulls this season compared to last year, when they were ousted from the NBA play-in tournament, other than Zach LaVine not being around. DeMar DeRozan is still “the guy” for this team, and Coby White continues to take massive steps in the right direction. White will be in consideration for Most Improved Player by voters this year.

Hawks X-factor: Keep Chicago off the free-throw line

Not having Okongwu or Johnson really limits what the Hawks can do in their frontcourt. As a result, it would not come as a shock to see the Bulls constantly attack the rim, possibly looking to get Clint Capela in foul trouble, seeing as the Hawks don't have a reliable option behind him right now. The Hawks are very average when it comes to fouling their opponents, but the Bulls are going to look to expose them in the paint by drawing fouls.

In the three games they played against Atlanta this season, the Bulls took 31, 29, and 24 free-throw attempts. All three of these numbers are above the 21.1 free throw attempts per game average Chicago registered over the course of the regular season. Ultimately, free throws proved to be the difference in the Bulls picking up two victories over the Hawks this season, as they outscored Atlanta by 14 points from the charity stripe.

Keeping the Bulls off the free-throw line allows the Hawks to do what they do best: run and score in transition. A fast, up-tempo game certainly favors Atlanta in this 9-seed vs. 10-seed battle.

Bulls X-factor: The DeRozan's

The Bulls have DeMar DeRozan as their focal point on offense, and they have Diar DeRozan as their secret weapon when the Hawks go to the free-throw line. If you remember back to last season when the Bulls defeated the Toronto Raptors in the 9-seed vs. 10-seed game, you may recall hearing screaming in the arena every time the Raptors went to the line. This was Diar screaming at the top of her lungs as a distraction.

Ultimately, it worked, as the Raptors shot 18-36 from the line. If she is at the game, the Hawks better be careful, because Diar is coming for their eardrums!

Offensively, the Bulls will lean on their backcourt of Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu to make plays. At the end of the day, DeRozan is the one who is going to have to carry the load in the fourth quarter. DeMar averaged 28.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 2.3 rebounds in three games against Atlanta this season, and he shot 49.1 percent from the floor. DeRozan always looks confident against the Hawks, and he will be the catalyst for the Bulls' offense once more.