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Expert Team

How NBA Handicapping Changes in the Postseason

Basketball Player Dunking
There are 2 universal truths of NBA basketball betting in the regular season. First that it is fun – it will never stop being fun.

And the other truth? It’s that we all know the drill already.

The fall, winter and early spring come with predictable narratives in Association hoops from game-by-game and wide-view angles. Injured superstars are held out of action until coaches feel their talents are needed against a marquee opponents. Losing clubs “tank” and sell-off their veterans late in the year, hoping for lottery draft-picks to replenish their rosters.

On the court, point spreads and Over/Under totals are often decided by whether a losing coach decides to call for a foul-or-rama or simply let his club play out the minutes.

NBA live-betting aficionados hunt for “Garbage Time Kings” who are likely to produce buckets and fouls-against when the overall win-loss outcome of a game has already been decided.

Postseason NBA ball changes all of that. Nobody is tanking on purpose in the playoffs, you can be sure of that. Coaches will almost always call for a fouling game to extend the 4th quarter when trailing, and defenders who slumped-and-turned like James Harden in the regular season become fanatical shot-blockers hungry for swats and steals.

Finally, it’s very possible that there is no “garbage time” to handicap in the NBA playoffs anymore.

Not after what happened on April 15th, 2019.

Warriors Call for Garbage Time and Get Clipped

Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening when the Golden State Warriors took on the L.A. Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals in April.

Stephen Curry and the usual cast of characters (minus Boogie Cousins, who went down in the 1st quarter) ran up a comfortable halftime lead after winning Game 1 at Oracle Arena. In the 2nd half, the Clippers’ deficit reached 31 points – more than the average number of points scored in a quarter.

All that the talented Warriors had to do was play in some semblance of a regular basketball game for another few minutes.

There are no “regular” games once the regular season is over. Steve Kerr made the mistake of resting starters, engaging the Oakland crowd in some “sleepy” garbage-time minutes. Except that the Clippers were in no mood to throw their series-tying chances into a wastebasket.

Surging runs by the L.A. upstarts quickly produced a panic, with Curry, Klay Thompson, and Durant all pressed into heavy-duty action but unable to stem the tide of a miracle comeback.

Speaking of live betting, I’m sure a few online sportsbooks re-thought their pricing algorithms after paying-off wagers on L.A…made at cosmic-long odds during the course of the contest.

NBA Postseason Betting: The Kurt Rambis Principle

Kurt Rambis is a legendary NBA cager who played for the L.A. Lakers, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings over a long career. On his talent and grit alone, Rambis was a top commodity in the market and an asset to squads advancing in the postseason.

But Rambis also had another advantage – he played every game like it was the playoffs.

The veteran’s hustle was so well-documented that handicappers had to factor-in a postseason type of defensive value for Rambis against whoever he was guarding on a given night. The humble Indiana native was a wild man, grabbing loose balls under the basket and turning them into points.

Author Joe Drape wrote in the retrospective In The Hornets’ Nest that Rambis was the ultimate acquisition for an expansion club like Charlotte at the time. His productivity would remain high in a playoff series, but his value would decrease in that scenario, relative to how players who had coasted through regular-season games would be hulking-up in April. But the Hornets didn’t expect to make it that far and were just hoping to put the most competitive NBA team possible on the floor.

When handicapping the NBA postseason, it’s important to keep an eye out for athletes – like Harden – who tend to take plays off during the grind of the winter and then turn it on full steam when the playoffs begin.

But it’s just as important to look out for Kurt Rambises – players whose prodigious output during the regular season is partially a mirage caused by the effects of every-night hustle on the stat sheet.

Counting the Minutes

Once again, in the playoffs you will notice that key components who had been sitting-out with nagging injuries will be depended on to suit up.

Playoff time in the NBA brings out a revitalized sense of urgency, as Kirk Herbstreit would say.

Just look at 2018-2019’s backcourt combo in Portland featuring Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard is up from playing 35.5 minutes to 40.7 minutes per game, while McCollum has bumped his time on the court up from 33.9 to 39.7 minutes. The increased scoring production of the pair has helped propel the Trail Blazers to a match-up against the vaunted Warriors.

Kawhi Leonard has also exploded in the postseason, upping his scoring average by 5+ points and diving for rebounds.

Now is the time Leonard was keeping himself healthy for. Athletes who coast in the regular season aren’t necessarily less-committed to winning than Kurt Rambis.

They’re just thinking like coaches.

Coaching in the NBA Postseason

It is rare to see a coach alter a club’s entire identity in the playoffs. But sometimes slight tweaks within a team’s system can flip a win into a loss, such as an adjustment to the starting lineup.

In Game 2 of 2019’s Raptors-Sixers series. Philadelphia coach Brett Brown used spontaneous “huddles” to call plays from the bench, saving precious timeouts. Brown’s strategy paid off as Philly won to even the series 1-1.

Coaches also must decide when to call for a fouling game when trailing late in the 4th frame. Correctly anticipating this likely scenario is a crucial factor for Over/Under bettors on the NBA playoffs.

These days, some NBA coaches are hesitant to circle wagons too early…or even too late.

In Game 3 of the Warriors-Rockets series, Golden State trailed in 126-121 in OT with just under 20 seconds on the clock. Houston secured a defensive rebound and held onto the ball the remainder of the game. Was Kerr waving a white flag or just sending a weird message to his players?

In the “don’t say it” category, maybe Kerr had picked the Rockets (+6) to cover.

Enhanced Competition in May

#7 and #8 conference seeds haven’t been having much luck against powerhouse top seeds in the NBA playoffs. Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff in 1984, only 10 combined 7/8 seeds have produced an upset in the 1st round.

Dominant clubs take advantage of the lack of parity in the NBA. In the 2012 postseason, the Spurs started hot with 2 sweeps against the Jazz and Clippers. Minutes went deep into the bench superstars sat for long stretches.

Yet the dominance of the Spurs would come to an end in the conference finals against the Thunder that year, despite extra contributions from the big names.

It feels like Golden State got a rude awakening of a similar sort in the Clippers series. Parity may be lacking, but any postseason opponent must not be taken for granted in any sport. Things haven’t gotten any easier for Steve Kerr’s squad, which is now missing Kevin Durant and Boogie Cousins.

Playoff Referees and the O/U Line

Over/Under gamblers know to be as concerned with fouls as with buckets. Fouls add up to free throws which add up to points. Sure, no “over” bettor ever wants a terrific shooter to foul out, but a defensive specialist can foul out just as easy, putting points on the board in more than 1 way.

Referees have swallowed the whistle often in the 2018-19 postseason.

Players on both sides of the Golden State-Houston series griped about missed calls and argued that more free throws should have been awarded. Kevin Durant finished Game 1 of the series with 15 free-throw attempts and James Harden attempted 14 charity shots, but neither coaching staff thought the numbers should have been below 20.

Less fouls means less points, and the NBA’s present record-level of scoring is slightly down in the playoffs as expected. The “under” bets are winning more often.

But my blog still missed on the Warriors vs Trail Blazers O/U prediction for Game 1 – at the last second and only thanks to some unnecessary “show buckets” by Thompson and Golden State.

I guess Kerr’s cagers got the message after all. There’s no such thing as garbage time in the 21st century NBA, just time to shine for a club that is overcoming adversity to gun for the grail again.

Basketball is simply more competitive than ever. That means we’ve got to be more careful than ever when handicapping on hardwood.