How Do NBA Playoffs Work? (Ultimate Guide)

The NBA playoffs is one of the most exciting moments in sports.

It’s that time of the year when only the best teams are left to compete for the championship.

But how does it exactly work? Here are the key details:

  • All 30 NBA teams are divided into two conferences: West and East
  • Each conference consists of 8 teams
  • The regular season determines who qualifies for playoffs and their seeds
  • The Play-In Tournament decides the 7th and 8th seeds of each conference
  • The NBA Playoffs consist of 5 stages/series
  • Each NBA series is best of 7 games

In this guide, we’ll see the grueling journey of NBA teams to take home the crown.  

What is the NBA Playoffs?

The NBA playoffs seem like a complicated system, especially when they added the Play-In Tournament in the 2020-21 season.

But I promise, it’s not that complicated once you dig deep. Luckily, you’re here, so I’ll make this as smooth as possible.

The NBA playoffs is the post-season tournament usually held for 3 months. They typically are in April, May, and June.

Starting from the Play-In Tournament, it will progress through different stages until they reach the NBA Finals.

On the contrary, the NBA regular season runs from October to April, which is 7 months long.

But the most important thing to know is the regular season is just for seeding. The NBA playoffs is held to determine the NBA champion.

How do NBA Teams Qualify for the Playoffs?

So, you might be wondering how do NBA playoffs work exactly?

Before that, how do teams even qualify for the playoffs?

There are 30 teams in the NBA, and only 16 teams will get to compete in the playoffs.

So, teams will compete in the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. They’ll each play 82 games to determine their standings.

Basically, only 8 teams will qualify for the playoffs for each conference. This means that these 8 teams have the best records in their conferences.

To understand this easily, here are the regular season standings of all NBA teams from the 2022-23 season.

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee Bucks5824
2. Boston Celtics5725
3. Philadelphia 76ers5428
4. Cleveland Cavaliers5131
5. New York Knicks4735
6. Brooklyn Nets4537
7. Atlanta Hawks4141
8. Miami Heat4438
9. Toronto Raptors4141
10. Chicago Bulls4042
11. Indiana Pacers3547
12. Washington Wizards3547
13. Orlando Magic3448
14. Charlotte Hornets2755
15. Detroit Pistons1765

Western Conference

1. Denver Nuggets5329
2. Memphis Grizzlies5131
3. Sacramento Kings4834
4. Phoenix Suns4537
5. Los Angeles Clippers4438
6. Golden State Warriors4438
7. Los Angeles Lakers4339
8. Minnesota Timberwolves4240
9. New Orleans Pelicans4240
10. Oklahoma City Thunder4042
11. Dallas Mavericks3844
12. Utah Jazz3745
13. Portland Trail Blazers3349
14. Houston Rockets2260
15. San Antonio Spurs2260

The playoff qualification and seed/standing and is determined by a team’s win or loss record.

Basically, only 8 of these teams will qualify for the playoffs. But since there’s a Play-In Tournament, the 7th and 8th positions will be fought for by four teams – from the 7th to the 10th seeds.  

What are the Advantages of Higher Playoff Seeds?  

You might be wondering about using positions/seeds in the playoffs since 8 teams will qualify for the playoffs.

Of course, the NBA wouldn’t create a seeding if there weren’t advantages to them.

So, what do the highest-seed teams earn?  

  • The higher seed team will get a home-court advantage within the first three rounds of the playoffs
  • They will get to play the lower seeds first
  • They have a chance to get the home-court advantage in the NBA Finals

Basically, the higher the seed of the team is, the better advantage they get.

This is because the number 1 seed will fight against the number 8 seed in the first Round. The number 2 seed will fight the 7th seed, and so on.

Thus, the lower seeds will always be at a disadvantage with stronger opponents early on and no home-court advantages.    

If you want to know the full advantages of each seed, I found this great resource.

How do NBA Playoffs Work? (5 Stages)

The NBA playoffs is divided into several rounds.

Unlike in the regular season, where each team will play 82 games, tournament brackets are in place this time.

To make it easy to understand, I’ll explain each Round below.

1. Play-In Tournament

The Play-In Tournament is a mini-tournament that teams would need to play in to compete for the 7th and 8th seeds for each conference.

They consist of 6 games and usually don’t take too long to complete. For instance, in the 2022-23 NBA season, the Play-In Tournament was on April 11-14.

The Play-In Tournament was created as a new concept during the bubble season in 2020. But it wasn’t until the 2021 season that it was fully implemented.

The purpose is to discourage teams from tanking at the end of the regular season. The Play-In tournament gives the teams in the 9th and 10th seeds a fighting chance for a spot in the playoffs.

Of course, this meant the teams already in the 7th and 8th seeds would need to fight for their spot. Before the Play-In tournament, the 7th and 8th seeds would automatically qualify for the playoffs.

So, how exactly does it work?

  • For each conference, the 7th and 8th seeds will face off. The winner will then get the 7th seed. The loser will still have a chance to fight for the 8th seed.
  • Then the 9th and 10th seed teams will play. The winner will then have a chance to fight for the 8th seed.
  • Then the loser of the 7th and 8th seed fight and the winner of the 9th and 10th seed battle will face off. The winner of this fight will be the 8th seed.
  • This is the same Format for the two conferences: West and East.

Basically, the advantage of the 7th and 8th seed teams is that they’re one win away from playoffs.

But for the 9th and 10th seeds, they’ll need to win two consecutive games to get the 8th seed.

2. 1st Round

The first Round is technically when the playoffs begin before the Play-In tournament was implemented.

Here, 16 teams will compete in a best of 7 games to advance to the next round. For each conference, there will be 8 teams competing for a total of 4 series.

As for who decides who will play who, the seeding/standing is used.

So, for instance, let’s take the 2021-22 NBA season as an example. In the first round, the 1st-seed Suns faced off against the 8th-seed Pelicans.

Then, the 4th-seed Mavericks fought the 5th-seeded Jazz.

Basically, the strong teams will fight against the weaker teams. This gives the higher-seed teams the advantage they deserve since they have won more games.

And for lower-seeded teams, this is their chance for an upset.

The first Round of playoffs typically lasts between 2-3 weeks. Of course, this depends on the number of games played. But after this Round, only 4 teams for each conference will advance.  

3. 2nd Round/Conference Semifinals

In the Conference Semifinals or the second round, there are only 4 teams for each conference remaining.

This Round typically will last for less than two weeks for both conferences.

In this Round, only two teams in each conference will advance.

You may also see more defense and more high-pressure games. But that can also be said starting from the Play-In Tournament.

4. Conference Finals

Finally, we reach the Conference Finals. This is the stage where the winner will claim their ticket to getting one step closer to the Finals.

Recently, the NBA renamed the Conference Finals awards to the Bob Cousy Trophy for the East and the Oscar Robertson Trophy for the West.

Aside from the trophies, there are also Conference MVP awards for each conference.

The Larry Bird Trophy is awarded in the Eastern Conference, while the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Trophy is given in the West.

The Conference Finals typically last for two weeks, with a few days of rest before the Finals start.

5. NBA Finals

Here we are at last at the NBA Finals. This is the place that every player and team dream of reaching.

Here, the Conference Finals champions will face off to determine the NBA Finals Champion for that season.

This is still a 7-game series where the first team to win 4 games wins the title. The champion will be awarded the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

There will also be a Finals MVP Award handed out to the best player on the winning team.

The NBA Finals typically start on June 1st and will last for around three weeks if it comes down to game 7.

In 2015, the NBA adjusted the Finals schedule to allow teams a two-day rest between games. This Format has been adapted since, allowing players more rest time.

NBA Playoff Schedule (2022-23 Season)

The NBA Playoffs schedule isn’t set in stone. But they typically have a time frame for each Round.

The playoffs will last anywhere from 9 to 10 weeks or 2 and a half months.

If you’re curious about what a playoff schedule typically looks like, I’ll list the playoff schedule for the 2022-23 season below.

Play-In TournamentApril 11-14
1st RoundApril 15-April 30
Conference SemifinalsMay 1-15
Conference FinalsMay 16-31
NBA FinalsJune 1-June 18

Note that these dates aren’t set in stone as they can move up depending on how many games each series will take.

But generally, the playoffs follow a set time frame like this.

NBA Teams With the Most Playoffs Appearances

The NBA started on June 6, 1946. In its 70+ years of history, countless champions have been crowned.

There have also been countless teams who made the playoffs over the decades. So, which teams have made the most playoff appearances?

TeamNBA Playoff Games
1. Los Angeles Lakers761
2. Boston Celtics699
3. Philadelphia 76ers471
4. San Antonio Spurs403
5. Atlanta Hawks384
6. New York Knicks380
7. Golden State Warriors371
8. Detroit Pistons370
9. Chicago Bulls349
10. Oklahoma City Thunder331
11. Houston Rockets322
12. Phoenix Suns309
13. Milwaukee Bucks301
14. Utah Jazz292
15. Portland Trail Blazers274
16. Miami Heat267
17. Indiana Pacers241
18. Washington Wizards237
19. Cleveland Cavaliers229
20. Dallas Mavericks227
21. Denver Nuggets210
22. Sacramento Kings187
23. Brooklyn Nets167
24. Los Angeles Clippers142
25. Orlando Magic133
26. Toronto Raptors123
27. Memphis Grizzlies92
28. Charlotte Hornets63
29. Minnesota Timberwolves58
30. New Orleans Pelicans55

As we can see from the table, the big market teams dominate this ranking.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics currently are tied in the number of championship titles held at 16.

And most of the teams at the top have multiple championships, such as the Warriors, 76ers, Spurs, Knicks, Pistons, and Bulls.

But at the bottom of the barrel, we find primarily small market teams, with New Orleans Pelicans dead last.

NBA Playoff Terms

The NBA playoffs is held each year to determine the NBA Champion.

But some terms are confusing whether you’re new to the NBA or haven’t had a chance to learn about it.

Here’s the list of terms you’ll always hear or read about the NBA playoffs. I’ll explain each of them briefly.


The NBA seeds are essentially the ranks of each team in the playoffs. There are only 16 teams in total that will qualify for the playoffs. Each conference will have 8 teams.

Seeds are the positions of each team in the playoffs. For example, the 1st seed is the team with the best win percentage out of everyone in their conference.

Seeds determine which teams get to fight during the Play-In Tournament and the First Round.  


The term bracket in sports is used to illustrate the diagram that lists all the series played by the teams.

In the NBA, there are 5 stages/rounds that teams will have to go through before becoming a champion.

So, in the brackets, you’ll quickly see the series’ progression starting from the Play-In to the NBA Finals.


The Round is the stages that the NBA playoffs consist of. There are 5 rounds in the playoffs:

  • Play-In Tournament
  • 1st Round
  • 2nd Round/Conference Semifinals
  • Conference Finals
  • NBA Finals

2-2-1-1-1 Format

The 2-2-1-1-1 Format describes who gets the home-court advantage in every playoff series.

If you remember, each series is played on a best of 7 games where the team who reaches 4 wins first wins the series.

So, the team with the higher seed will get the home-court advantage for the first 2 games. Then, the next 2 games will be played on the opponent’s court. Then the remaining 3 games will alternate between the two teams.

That’s if there’s a need for a game 5, 6 and 7.

Winning Percentage

The winning percentage determines the team’s seeds in the NBA playoffs.

It’s calculated as the total wins divided by the number of matches played. For instance, the Milwaukee Bucks’ regular season record for 2022-23 is 58 wins and 24 losses.

To calculate, divide 58 by 82 games, and we get .707 as their winning percentage.


The NBA playoffs has evolved gradually over the decades. They’ve recently introduced the Play-In tournament to discourage low-seed teams from tanking.

But in essence, the playoffs hasn’t changed in that it consists of rounds where 16 teams compete for the Finals trophy.

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