How Do The NBA Playoffs Work?

Within the world of basketball, there is no trophy more sought after than the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy awarded to the winning team in the final of the NBA. The winning team of this annual tournament gains more than just another piece of silverware, the winners of the trophy are the undisputed champions of basketball across the globe, a prize that really is the crowning achievement of any professional player.

How The NBA Playoffs Work

In order to even have a shot at this title means participating in the NBA playoffs played between the 16 best teams across North America, with 8 teams coming from the East and 8 from the West. For fans and players alike, this is the moment the entire league works for across the season. Many fans look forward to the playoffs like they do no other part of the sporting calendar. The entire organization and every team dream and work towards the playoffs and the chance to cement themselves in the basketball history books, and contribute towards the continued success of the game as a whole.

But how do the playoffs work? This article will explain all the ins and outs of some of the most important games in the entirety of basketball.

First of all, you need to know about the teams in the playoffs and how they pick which teams will be in with a chance of competing.

How Many Teams Are In The NBA Playoffs?

There are 30 teams in the NBA and only the 16 best teams are selected for a chance to compete in the NBA playoffs. It’s important to remember that in the NBA all the teams are split into two groups, known as conferences, the East and West. Each team has a spot known as a seed on the playoff bracket. The seed determines which teams will face off against which.

But how do they decide what team actually reaches the playoffs?

Each conference’s teams are ranked by their win percentage, meaning that the team with the most wins at the end of the regular season gets the 1st seed spot in their conference. Of course, it has been known for two teams to have the same win record, but unlike in other sports, the winner isn’t decided through a tiebreak game. Instead, the NBA has a series of rules to decide which team would seed higher than the other.

The table below is taken from the NBA website and outlines what the league will do in the event of a tie between two teams, or a tie between 3 teams. The winner is decided as soon as a stipulation is met. These tiebreakers occur to stop any accusations of unfairness and to ensure that the teams that do go through to the playoffs are in the best possible shape and to protect players from injury. Have a look through to get a better understanding of how the NBA chooses which team goes through to the playoffs based on a tie.

Two-Team Tie Breaker Rules:

Winner is the team which has:

  • Better record in head-to-head games
  • Division winner (this criterion is applied regardless of whether the tied teams are in the same division)
  • Higher winning percentage within division (if teams are in the same division)
  • Higher winning percentage in conference games
  • Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in own conference
  • Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in opposite conference
  • Higher point differential between points scored and points allowed

Three-Team Tie Breaker Rules (3 Way Tie - or more):

Winner is the team which has:

  • Division winner (this criterion is applied regardless of whether the tied teams are in the same division)
  • Best head-to-head winning percentage among all teams tied
  • Highest winning percentage within division (if teams are in the same division)
  • Highest winning percentage in conference games
  • Highest winning percentage against playoff teams in own conference
  • Highest point differential between points scored and points allowed

Which Teams Make Up The Eastern / Western Conference In The NBA?

You may have noticed that the rules mention a ‘division leader’ and this is worth clarifying. Every NBA team is in a division with 4 other teams. Each Conference has 3 divisions within it, meaning that there are 15 teams in each conference. Below you’ll find a table of all the teams in the NBA in each division.  

So, what teams are in each conference in the NBA? As previously described all 30 teams in the NBA are split into 2 conferences, each containing 15 teams each. Both the West and East conferences contain 3 divisions of 5 teams each. These divisions are important when deciding playoff tiebreakers and seeds.

Check out the list below for all the teams and where they fit in each division and conference:

Eastern Conference

ATlantic Division



SouthEast Division

Toronto Raptors

Milwaukee Bucks

Miami Heat

Boston Celtics

Indiana Pacers

Orlando Magic

Philadelphia 76ers

Chicago Bulls

Washington Wizards

Brooklyn Nets

Detroit Pistons

Charlotte Hornets

New York Knicks

Cleveland Cavaliers

Atlanta Hawks

Western Conference

NorthWest Division



SouthWEst Division

Denver Nuggets

Los Angeles Lakers

Houston Rockets

Utah Jazz

Los Angeles Clippers

Dallas Mavericks

Oklahoma City Thunder

Sacramento Kings

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Phoenix Suns

New Orleans Pelicans


Golden State Warriors

San Antonio Spurs

So if those are the teams, how about the games. How many games are there in the playoffs and how do they work?

How Many Games Are Played In The NBA Playoffs?

Well the NBA playoffs are divided into 4 rounds including the Finals. Every round has the teams match up and play a best out of 7 series. This means that the first team to get 4 wins moves onto the next round. The losing team is knocked out of the playoffs and loses their shot to be the undisputed champions of the sport.


Min NUmber Of Games Played

Max Number Of Games Played

1st Round: 16 Teams



2nd Round (Semi): 8 Teams



3rd Round Conf. Finals: 4 Teams



NBA Finals: 2 Teams






Each conference has 4 match-ups in the opening rounds, meaning that in the entire playoffs there are 8 matchups, these are known as a series. The first round will have a minimum of 32 games if each series foes to a sweep and 56 games if each game reaches game 7. The winner of the seventh and final game is always the winner of the series. If a team were to win every game in the series without giving a game away to the other team then this is known as a sweep.

The second round involves the remaining 8 teams (the winners from the first round) play another series of 7 games against each other. There’s a minimum of 16 games in the second round and a maximum of 28. The Conference Final comes after the second round and has a maximum of 14 and a minimum of 8 games. The Conference Finals has the final two teams from each conference do battle to decide which will represent the conference at the NBA Finals. The winner then goes onto to play their counterpart from the other conference at the biggest game in the entirety of basketball. The NBA Finals.

If every game in the playoffs is a sweep then there’ll be a total of 60 games, whereas if every series reaches the final seventh game than a total of 105 games will be played. Just looking at these numbers will give you some idea of the physical endurance players need to have to perform at this level. No one said becoming the champions is an easy feat, and to even have a shot you need to be at the top of your game.

What Is Home Court Advantage In The NBA Playoffs?

You may have heard the phrase ‘a home-court advantage’ used concerning the NBA playoffs and wondered what it meant. Luckily, we’re here to clear it up for you. The home-court advantage is a term used to decide which teams play at home first. In the 2018/19 season, the teams that got to play at home first or had the Home Court Advantage follows the 2-2-1-1-1 system. This means that the team with the HCA gets the first two games of the series and the final game. Playing on the home court is likely to play better as it’s their home ground, but it’s also a big responsibility. No one wants to lose at home.

What's The History Of The NBA Playoffs Format?

The NBA Playoff format has stayed largely the same for a long time, with the last big change occurring in 2005. The NBA Playoffs is one of the biggest periods of the basketball season attracting millions of fans worldwide, the exact format does change season by season but you can always be sure it’ll come at the end of the season and be an event worth tuning in for.

Final Thoughts

The Playoffs are for many the highlight of a year’s worth of basketball. The build-up and your team’s journey to the Playoffs are for many fans one of the most exciting periods of the season. You can be certain that they’ll remain a staple TV event for a great many years to come and a chance for fans and players alike to see their team reach the highest pinnacle of achievement in basketball.

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