How Do NBA Playoffs Work?

Those who win the NBA championship are the undisputed kings of the basketball world. But how do the NBA playoffs work? Well, 16 teams from the NBA face off against each other until one winner becomes the ultimate champions.

NBA playoffs produce some of the most exciting and iconic moments in basketball history. Things have become even more exciting with the new play-in tournament in the league. 

Let's look at what criteria decide which teams make it to the playoffs. We'll also talk about the chances for the new play-in tournament to help the lower seeds on the table make it to the playoffs. 

Organizing the NBA

Currently, there are 30 teams in the NBA. There are two conferences in the league, each with 15 teams: the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. In addition, each conference has three divisions, and each division consists of five teams. 

The Western and Eastern Conferences have western and eastern US teams, respectively. The only Canadian team in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors, plays in the Eastern Conference. 

In the Eastern Conference, there are divisions for the Atlantic, Central, and Southeast. On the other hand, the Western Conference contains the Northwest, Pacific, and Southwest divisions. 

Unlike some sports, there is no relegation in the NBA. 


Playoff Seed Spots

The top six teams in either conference qualify for the playoffs. The first and the most important criteria to rank teams is their win percentage in the league.

The team with the most wins and highest win percentage will be on top of the points table and named the first "seed." 

In the case of a tie between two or more teams for the highest win percentage, the NBA follows a set of procedures to determine who wins the spot.

In such cases, the team with the highest win percentage in games against each other will take the spot. When there is a tie in this percentage, the spot goes to the division leader.

Seeds two to six will go to the subsequent leaders of the conference. Since the playoffs are a round of 16, there are an additional two seeds from either conference. A play-in tournament determines these spots.

Play-In Tournament

The top six teams in either conference automatically qualify for the playoffs. The seventh and eighth seeds go to the winners of the play-in tournament.

Teams ranked seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth on the table compete for these seed spots. The bottom five teams are automatically ineligible for the playoffs.  

There are three games in each conference's play-in tournament, determining each team's fate. Game one is between the teams in seventh and eighth position. The winner of this match wins the seventh seed spot, and the loser will compete to be the eighth seed.

Teams in the ninth and tenth position compete in game two. The winner of this game faces the loser of game one, and the loser is out of the competition.

Finally, game three determines the eighth seed spot. The loser of game one plays the winner of game two in this game. 

As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic during the 2019-2020 season, the play-in tournament was introduced. Regular season games were shortened from 82 to 72 because of the virus. 

Since the 2021-2022 season, the play-in tournament changes have become permanent. The introduction of the play-in tournament has brought a new element of excitement to the qualification process and a chance for lower table teams to still qualify.

Playoff Format of the NBA

The playoffs are a best of seven series. The first seed will play against the eight, the second against the seventh, etc. The loser of each series is eliminated. 

The minimum number of games in each series is four. If one team wins the first four games, there is no need for a fifth. The maximum number of games in a series is seven. In the case of a tie, play will continue until a winner is declared.

The winning teams from each series will then face each other. The winner of seed one versus eight will play the winner of seed four versus five, and so on. The team that dominates is the conference winners. 

The teams that win the conference finals will compete in the NBA finals. One team from either conference will make it through. The final is a best of seven series.

Home-Court Advantage

The team with the better record during the regular season wins home-court advantage. This means out of seven possible matches, the first two will be at home. The third and fourth games will be away, followed by another home game.

If the series persists, game six will be away, and game seven will once again be at home. 

The home-court advantage boosts the chances of the team with a better record. More often than not, teams perform better at their home court. The same rules apply in the NBA finals.

Even though the finals will be two teams for separate conferences, the team with the superior season stats will win the advantage. 

History of NBA Playoffs

Since its inception in 1946 as the BAA (Basketball Association of America), the NBA has conducted playoffs every year.

In the first playoffs held in 1947, only six teams made it past the league stage. In the first final, the Philadelphia Warriors would defeat the Chicago Stags to become the first-ever recognized champions of the league. 

During the late 1940s, the National Basketball League (NBL) emerged as a competitor with the BAA. But, the competition and the quality of players were far better in the BAA.


Many college rookies preferred to join BAA and start their professional journey there. As a result, the NBL declined and finally merged with the BAA on August 3rd, 1949, to form today's NBA.

Thus, in 1950, the NBA had more teams than ever before. So, the playoffs comprised 12 teams instead of six for the first time. However, this number would fall back to six in 1955 when the NBA faced a shortage of registered teams. 

As investors funneled more money into the league, the playoffs increased to eight teams in 1968. Subsequently, in 1975 we saw the playoffs increase to 12 teams once more. 

The NBA went through an expansion in 1983. The result of this was the start of today's 16 team bracket tournament in the playoffs. However, teams competed in a best of five series at that time. The best of seven series came about in 2003.

NBA Champions

Winning the NBA Final is no easy feat, with 30 teams to compete against in total. Players get championship rings when their team wins the final.

The current champs and winners of the 2020-2021 playoffs are the Milwaukee Bucks. They defeated the Phoenix Suns in a dramatic game six win. The championship marks the first-ever in the history of the Bucks. 

In contrast, both the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers have won the NBA finals a total of seventeen times each. 


Thanks to his four championship rings, LeBron James is the most successful current NBA player. He has been instrumental in his team's success in winning the NBA finals, once with Cleveland, twice with Miami, and most recently with the Lakers. 

However, Bill Russell remains an NBA legend with a total of 11 championship rings. From 1959 to 1966, the Boston Celtic dominated the league with the help of their talisman, Russell. The former center led the Celtics to a staggering eight consecutive championship wins. Their reign remains one of the most dominant dynasties in NBA history. 

Recap: How NBA Playoffs Work

The playoffs have been a part of the NBA ever since the start of the league. Though the structure has changed slightly as more teams have registered to play in the league, the knock-out tournament style of play has remained the same. 

Today, 16 teams compete to be NBA champions. The top six teams from either conference automatically qualify.

As a result of the shortened seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new play-in tournament was introduced to decide the seventh and eighth playoff spots. This became a permanent addition to the qualification process as of the 2021-2022 season. 

Top teams battle it out in the conference finals first. The winners of each conference go on to face each other in the NBA finals. In either case, the winner is decided based on a best of seven series. 

If you've ever wondered to yourself, how do NBA playoffs work? We hope we've answered your questions. Now you're ready to follow along with your favorite team and hope they make it to the playoffs!

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Joshua Bast

My name is Joshua Bast and I have been playing basketball ever since I was 7 years old. I love the game play, I love the feeling whenever I score a basket, but what made me fell in love was the camaraderie with my team mates. This blog is dedicated to help any up-and-coming basketball players maximize their potential.

Joshua Bast