Everything you need to know about the NBA playoffs, including postseason rules, formats, schedule and fantasy implications.

For basketball fans, the calendar turning to April means one thing: the NBA Playoffs are around the corner.

In recent years, the NBA has implemented a number of changes to its postseason. This guide will detail everything you need to know about the NBA Playoffs, including the history of the postseason, the current format, the number of rounds, how seeding works, the addition of the NBA Play-In Tournament and what it all means for fantasy basketball enthusiasts. 

History of the NBA Playoffs

The NBA was established in 1949, but the first postseason recognized by the league was held in 1947 when it was still called the Basketball Association of America (BAA). The East champions played the West champions in a best-of-seven series, and then four runners-up faced off in a best-of-three series to determine the other championship finalist. The Philadelphia Warriors won the first NBA championship, defeating the Chicago Stags, 4 games to 1.

Over the years, the NBA would experiment with various series lengths – from best-of-three to best-of-five to best-of-seven. In 1954, they tried a round-robin featuring three playoff teams in each division. As the league continued to expand, the NBA continued to tweak the postseason. 

It wasn't until 1984 that the NBA adopted the current postseason format with 16 teams and four rounds.

How Do the NBA Playoffs Work?

Every sport’s postseason is slightly different, so let’s break down how the NBA Playoffs work.

How many teams make the NBA Playoffs?

Each year, 16 NBA teams qualify for the postseason – eight from the Eastern Conference and eight from the Western Conference. For example, the following teams made the 2024 NBA Playoffs.

Eastern Conference: Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat

Western Conference: Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans

NBA Playoff Bracket

What is the Play-In Tournament?

The NBA Play-In Tournament features the bottom four teams from each conference (the No. 7 seed, No. 8 seed, No. 9 seed, and No. 10 seed) battling for the final two playoff seeds in their respective conference. It’s worth noting that the NBA doesn’t count the Play-In Tournament as an official round of the playoffs.

While the tournament is technically postseason basketball (since it’s played after the conclusion of the regular season), the NBA views the Play-In Tournament as a separate tournament that determines which teams get to compete in the NBA Playoffs.

How many rounds are in the NBA Playoffs?

The NBA Playoffs are made up of four rounds since, again, the NBA does not count the Play-In Tournament as an official round. Once the Play-In Tournament decides the No. 7 and No. 8 seed in each conference, the real playoff action gets underway.

Sixteen teams face off in the first round. From there, eight teams advance to the Conference Semifinals. The final four teams meet in the Conference Finals. Finally, when two teams are left standing, they go head-to-head in the NBA Finals with the Larry O'Brien trophy on the line.

How Does Seeding Work in the NBA Playoffs?

The regular season determines each team’s playoff seed. The top six teams in each conference are guaranteed a playoff berth (without having to compete in the Play-In Tournament), and the top four teams earn homecourt advantage through the Conference Finals (meaning they will get to host Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 of the series while their opponent hosts Games 3, 4, and 6). 

The first-round matchups are determined by seeding. In both conferences, the No. 1 seed faces the No. 8 seed, No. 2 seed faces the No. 7 seed, No. 3 seed faces the No. 6 seed, and No. 4 seed faces the No. 5 seed. Teams are not reseeded as they advance through the playoffs; the seeds are fixed for the entirety of the postseason.

When Is the NBA Play-In Tournament? 

The NBA Play-In Tournament takes place in mid-April. 

In 2024, the Western Conference Play-In Tournament featured the No. 7 New Orleans Pelicans, No. 8 Los Angeles Lakers, No. 9 Sacramento Kings, and No. 10 Golden State Warriors. The Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament consisted of the No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers, No. 8 Miami Heat, No. 9 Chicago Bulls, and No. 10 Atlanta Hawks. 

The Pelicans, Lakers, 76ers, and Heat each advanced to earn a spot in the 2024 NBA Playoffs.

When Are the NBA Playoffs? 

The NBA Playoffs begin in late April and continue through mid-to-late June, depending on how long it takes to complete the series.

Each series follows a specific schedule with games played every few days, allowing for rest and travel between contests. 

The 2024 NBA Playoffs kicked off on April 20 and ended with the Boston Celtics being crowned champions after winning the NBA Finals 4 games to 1 over the Dallas Mavericks on June 17. 

NBA Playoffs Fantasy Impact

In case you’re wondering, yes, you can play fantasy basketball during the NBA Playoffs! While most season-long leagues wrap up during the NBA’s regular season before teams start resting key players, there are plenty of daily fantasy sports (DFS) options to play during the postseason.

Sleeper Picks is a DFS game in which you select two or more players and pick whether they'll have more or less than their projected statistics in a given game across various categories. The more players you choose, the higher your potential payout will be if you win. Win or lose, you can play again and again for games throughout the NBA Playoffs. 

For example, in a given playoff game, you might pick Luka Doncic to score more than 32.5 points, Jaylen Brown to record more than 6.5 rebounds, Kyrie Irving to dish out more than 4.5 assists, and Jrue Holiday to score less than 12.5 points. If you got all four right, you would potentially 10x your payout!

With Sleeper Picks, you can mix and match players from various sports (including the NBA, NFL, MLB, WNBA, NHL, and NCAA). Sleeper Picks also allows you to make collaborative picks with your friends, chat with your squad in-app, and research players quickly thanks to Sleeper's detailed notes. Sleeper gives you live scoring updates and projections, and fast payouts with your integrated Sleeper wallet.

Get started with Sleeper Picks by downloading the Sleeper App

NBA Playoffs: Frequently Asked Questions

When did the NBA’s playoff format change?

The NBA has tweaked its playoff format several times throughout the league’s history. 

The most recent change to the postseason was in 2020 with the addition of the Play-In Tournament, which gave the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds in each conference a chance to earn a playoff spot. Initially, the NBA added the Play-In Games during the 2020 season in the Bubble as a way to fairly determine the playoff teams in a season that was shortened due to COVID-19. However, the Play-In Tournament was a hit and the league decided to bring it back in 2021 on a trial basis. It was added to the NBA Playoffs format permanently in 2023.

Prior to the Play-In Tournament, the league also changed the playoff format in 2003 when they implemented best-of-seven series in every round of the playoffs. Previously, the first round of the NBA Playoffs featured best-of-five series.

How does homecourt advantage work in the NBA postseason?

Homecourt advantage is given to the top four teams in each conference based on their regular-season record. 

The NBA uses a 2-2-1-1-1 home/away format, meaning the team with the better regular-season record hosts Games 1, 2, 5, and 7. The opposing team hosts Games 3, 4, and 6.

During the NBA Finals, the team with the better record earns homecourt advantage.

Are the NBA playoff series best-of-five or best-of-seven?

Every series in the NBA Playoffs is a best-of-seven series. In the past, the NBA had best-of-five and even best-of-three series. From 1984 to 2002, all first-round series were best-of-five. However, in 2003, the NBA decided to switch to best-of-seven series across the board.

Recap: Breaking Down the NBA Finals 

The NBA season is a grind, and the playoffs are the thrilling culmination of each campaign. During the postseason, the intensity ramps up and every team has a singular goal: hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. 

For basketball fans, the NBA Playoffs are where legends are made, rivalries are born, legacies are defined, and dynasties are crowned. There’s nothing better than watching the world’s best players and teams battle on basketball’s biggest stage. Now, you have all of the info you need to follow along.

If you want to make the NBA Playoffs even more interesting, try playing Sleeper Picks so you have a rooting interest in each game. If you want to try Sleeper Picks, download the Sleeper app today or create an account on the Sleeper website