A look back at the NBA playoff history for each of the four play-in tournament matchups, including two teams meeting for the first time ever.
Over the NBA’s storied history, numerous changes have been made to the NBA postseason. The reasons for the change vary, sometimes it’s to create more excitement, sometimes it’s to level the playing field and give more teams a chance to advanced. Very often, change is made to reduce travel and increase player safety. No matter the reason, change is nothing new in the NBA postseason.
Still, this year’s trial of the new play-in round is perhaps the most radical yet. A huge risk on the NBA’s part, the 2021 play-in round may go down as one of the best ideas the NBA ever concocted. Or, just as likely, one of the worst.
If you need a primer on how the play-in tournament works, we got one right here for you. No matter what happens, the eight teams in this year’s NBA play-in round are going to great timeless memories and moments this year. Before new memories are created let’s look back at the playoff histories for each of our play-in round matchups.
NBA playoff history: Indiana Pacers vs. Charlotte Hornets
We’ll start off with the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets who will face off in the first official play-in round game ever on Tuesday, May 18.
When these two teams tip-off at 6:30 p.m., this will be the first-ever postseason matchup between the two teams.
I had to double and triple-check that Basketball-Reference’s Playoff Rivalry tool worked properly. It did. It’s true. This is a first-time-ever postseason matchup between the two franchises.
The Hornets franchise began play in 1989 but would not make the playoffs until the 1994 season. The franchise would have several playoffs runs until 2002 but somehow never crossed paths with the Pacers until 2021.
Charlotte hasn’t been a perennial playoff team and, sure, they disappeared for a few years before re-emerging (well, in the NBA’s retcon of the situation) as the lackluster Charlotte Bobcats, but still, this seems hard to believe.
Don’t worry, I also checked to see if the New Orleans Hornets, prior to their move to the Western Conference, played the Pacers in the postseason.
No! Still nothing. First-time-ever!
Most of your friends will be looking forward to the renewal of Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James as the Golden State Warriors play the Los Angeles Lakers but you can let them know the real history is being made out east as the Hornets vs. Pacers play one another in the postseason for the first-time-ever!
Okay, maybe not. Still, this is cool. I have nothing more to add so just watch Larry Johnson dunk on people for four minutes:
NBA playoff history: Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards
These two franchises knew one another well in the last of the 70s and early 80s as they crossed paths in the 1975 Eastern Conference Finals, 1982 Eastern Conference Semifinals and 1984 Eastern Conference First-Round.
After a 33-year drought, the teams renewed their playoff rivalry in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
A total of 22 postseason games have been played between the two franchises with the Celtics holding a 13-9 lead in the series. The most recent series between the two was one of the weirdest in recent memory as the series went the full seven games with Boston emerging to move onto the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s not the weird part though. What’s weird is the point differentials in those games: 12, 10, 27, 19, 22, 1, 10 with only Game 6 feeling like a real contest between the two teams.
Their 1984 Eastern Conference First Round and 1982 Eastern Conference Semifinals battles were much more entertaining with razor-thin margins throughout both series. The result, though, was the same all three times: Celtics win.
Washington can always point to their 1975 Eastern Conference Finals series win though as Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld and Kevin Porter led the 60-win Bullets through the defending champion Boston Celtics and onto the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 48-win Golden State Warriors.
In one of the biggest playoff and NBA finals upsets of all time, Golden State emerged as the NBA Champions. Worse yet, they did so in a four-game sweep.
Washington would have to wait until 1978 for redemption as they won the franchise’s first and, to date, only NBA championship.
For the Celtics, a win over Washington in the playoffs has resulted in a few different outcomes. In 1982, they matched up in the next round with a juggernaut Philadelphia 76ers team and despite a hard-fought battle lost to the eventual NBA runner-ups.
In 1984, Boston rode the momentum of their first-round win over Washington with wins over New York, Milwaukee and the Lakers en route to the NBA championship.
Lastly, in 2017, Boston survived through two tough playoff rounds against Chicago and Washington but ran out of steam against the defending champion Cavaliers who emerged from the series victorious before falling to the Golden State Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals.
NBA playoff history: Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Grizzlies are only 25 years into their franchises’ existence but have still faced the Spurs 24 times in the playoffs over five separate series — two of which went to six games.
The 2004 Western Conference First Round was as academic as any series between these two. The Spurs were in the midst of their dynasty led by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, while the Grizzlies — now in their second home (Memphis) — made a surprise run to the playoffs, their first in franchise history. The Spurs made quick work of Pau Gasol and the Grizzlies sweeping them in four games including 24-point Game 1, 17-point Game 2 and 13-point Game 4 victories.
Memphis was far more competitive in 2011 as Zach Randolph had brought on a new era for the Grizzlies: Grit ‘n Grind.
After a shocking defeat to the Phoenix Suns the year prior, San Antonio recharged in 2011 to the tune of a 60-win regular season. With an NBA Finals berth on their mind, San Antonio treated the first-round No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed matchup with the Grizzlies as a tune-up.
That the Grizzlies had won only 46 games that year and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006 was just more evidence of how easy this was going to be for the Spurs.
Not so fast!
Memphis grit and ground their way to the shocking upset, the first playoff series win in franchise history.
San Antonio would win the next, well, 10 playoff games between the two franchises including sweeps in the 2013 Western Conference Finals and 2016 Western Conference First Round.
Memphis would get back on the board in the 2017 playoffs with two wins during the Western Conference First Round series but the Spurs emerged victorious in six games and made it to the conference finals before being swept by the Warriors.
This series has a lot of cool history behind it as well as huge franchise-altering implications. Memphis is looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since their first-round loss to the Spurs in 2017.
If San Antonio does not make it to the playoffs proper, it will be the first time in the franchise’s entire history (dating back to the 1968 Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA), that the team missed the playoffs in consecutive years.
NBA playoff history: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors
All eyes will be on this series and for good reason. Not only is this the renewal of the Steph Curry vs. LeBron James rivalry (a friendly one, but still!), it also features the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, a former dynasty with most of the same talent still in town as well as two teams with potential to make deep playoff runs.
This one is going to be a ton of fun and should be the NBA’s highest-rated play-in game. What happens in this game and how fans react could go a long way in determining the future viability and purpose of the play-in round.
But enough of the future, let’s talk about the past. These two franchises are no strangers to one another with 35 total playoff games starting in 1967.
What is cool, though, is that despite both franchises having successful periods throughout their history and a combined 23 NBA titles, they haven’t played one another in the postseason since 1991.
30 years and not a single postseason matchup until this year.
Again, this one is going to be a lot of fun.
The Lakers have by and large dominated their playoff matches with 24 wins to just 11 losses.
After a decisive three-game sweep of the Lakers in the 1967 Western Division Semifinals, the Warriors struggled to top the Lakers in the playoffs. The year after their clean sweep, the Warriors had the tables turned as they were swept by the Lakers in the Western Division Finals.
In 1969, the teams once again faced off in a nice series that ended with…a 40-point Lakers win in Game 6! What?
Warriors big man Nate Thurmond struggled to the tune of 3-13 from the floor, Rudy LaRusso went 1-9 and Jeff Mullins’ 21 points were not enough to hold off Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor who cruised to the 118-78 victory.
The familiar foes would battle once again in the 1973 Western Conference Finals, a hard-fought series (except for Game 3 which saw the Lakers win by…56 points!) that had the same result for Warriors fans: Lakers victory. Los Angeles would clinch their berth to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Walt Frazier, Dave BeBusschere and Bill Bradley-led New York Knicks.
After a few years apart, the Warriors and Lakers met again, this time the series was more competitive as the Western Conference Semifinals went to a Game 7. Once again, though, the Lakers won defeating Rick Barry and the Warriors in the series. Los Angeles would be blindsided in the next round by the upstart Portland Trail Blazers who swept them in four games.
After 10 years apart, the teams faced off again and look, what do you think happened? You know! The Lakers won the series in five games and went on to win the NBA Finals.
Lastly, in 1991, the Lakers and Warriors faced off in the Western Conference Semifinals and the Lakers once again made quick work for the Warriors, now an exciting team led by the Run TMC trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. The Lakers won in five games, defeated Portland in the Western Conference Finals and then had a date with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
Can Golden State channel the spirit of the 1967 San Francisco Warriors or will the Lakers make it seven straight postseason series wins over the Warriors?