NBA Basketball Betting–Understanding Playoff Series Dynamics


This is the first of a series of articles in which we’ll examine the dynamics of Best of Seven playoff series in the three North American sports that use them (NHL, NBA, MLB). Since the NBA playoffs are wrapping up at the time of the writing it seemed like the appropriate place to start. The public and recreational bettors have a somewhat myopic view of the playoffs and what they represent. If you assume the same ‘world view’ as a sports bettor you could take a hit in the bankroll because of it. The goal with these articles is to provide a bit of a realistic perspective on how playoff series typically work out.

The popular myth about NBA basketball is that the players drag themselves through a long, grueling season with little concern to wins and losses. Sure, they want to put themselves in a position to win in the postseason but there’s no point in ‘exerting energy’ in a game against Sacramento in February. There are exceptions (eg: Golden State) but most teams muddle through the season preparing to ‘bring it’ during the playoffs. Once the postseason begins, these teams come to life and play their hearts out to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in reality. All sports treat their individual games and regular seasons differently but there’s nothing to suggest that teams will ‘dog it’ during the regular season and then ‘flip the switch’ in the playoffs. This is especially true in the NBA. There are a few exceptions—San Antonio Spurs’ head coach Greg Popovich used to rest his aging superstars often during the regular season with an eye toward the playoffs. That’s a completely different thing entirely. Occasionally, you’ll see a team go on a run in the postseason and even win a championship but that is more often a contrivance of sports media hype than it is a verifiable reality.


Teams invariably carry their tendencies from the regular season—good and bad—into the playoffs. Again, there are exceptions like the 2016 San Jose Sharks of the NHL who had a horrible home record during the regular season but played well at home during the postseason. This example has more to do with variance and the Sharks’ tendency to lose focus against weak teams at home early in the year. When the puck dropped for the Stanley Cup playoffs they were ready to go to work.

That’s hockey, however, and we’re talking about the betting the NBA. Anyone that has watched pro basketball for awhile understands that players and teams will ‘take nights off’ and ‘phone in’ performances. This might not make sense to the fans but that’s the cold truth. The teams that do show up for all 82 games (give or take a few) and give 100% effort win. A lot. The current best example of that is the Golden State Warriors who will seldom put up a substandard effort. There are times when they’ll get beat but almost never because they didn’t have their head in the game or leave it on the floor.

Teams are who they are. That’s why it’s essential to ignore the narrative that the mainstream media crafts about a series. In the 2016 NBA Finals there were several different narratives written. First, it was that the Golden State Warriors are unbeatable after they won the first two games at home. After the Cleveland Cavaliers won Game Three at home the same media shills were telling us that ‘it’s a completely different series’ and ‘the Cavs are back’. It went back and forth along the same narrative track after Game 4 (won by Golden State) and Game 5 (won by Cleveland). After that, it was the coronation of ‘King James’ as his team won the NBA title.

Spoiler alert—the narrative is crafted by the sports media in some cases for hype and promotion (ESPN) and in other cases because it’s less work than actually analyzing statistics and breaking down matchups. There’s much to suggest that Cleveland comes out flat after a big win. That’s not uncommon, the Cavs have a quantifiable track record of this tendency and there’s nothing to suggest it has changed during the postseason. Meanwhile, there’s plenty to suggest that Golden State comes out spitting fire after a bad loss. It happened earlier in the 2016 NBA Finals and there was plenty of statistical data to validate this tendency. For example, the Warriors were 12-1 SU/9-3 ATS off a straight up loss as a favorite. They were 14-1 SU/12-3 ATS in ‘revenge’ spots. After a double digit loss they were 8-1 SU/6-3 ATS.

Do you see what is happening here? The story that the stats and trends will reveal is often completely different than the one being constructed by the sports media. The data tells us everything we need to know. If you already know that you should ignore the media and go with the data you get a star. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention to the narratives crafted by the mainstream sports media just so you can go against them.