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Defense the best offense when betting NBA playoff totals

Defense the best offense when betting NBA playoff totals

Defense the best offense when betting NBA playoff totals
By JOSH NAGEL

When it comes to betting totals in the NBA playoffs, the best offense might be a good defense.

This was a prevailing and profitable school of thought for many years, until oddsmakers and offenses started catching up. But last year’s postseason results suggest defense might be making another comeback.

“For about an eight-year span or longer, the NBA playoffs totals were a slam dunk,” said Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro of the Lucky’s Race & Sportsbook outfit. “You could bet every total under and take home at least 60 percent winners, from the first game through the NBA Finals.

“After years of getting hammered on these totals, we adjusted … now you have to wonder if we over-adjusted.”

Oddsmakers such as Vaccaro were thrilled to see the over/under results even out in recent years. In the past five postseasons, the under is 219-195 for a 52.8 winning percentage that the books can live with.

However, that record was bolstered by last year’s 50-35 record for the under bettors, led by the defense-minded NBA champion Boston Celtics. Playoff scoring also was down 10 points per game from the regular-season average of 199.8 to 189.7.

The 58.8 percent win rate for unders teetered on dangerous territory for the books after they had seen a significant respite from such losses. The under was just 169-160 over the four previous postseasons combined.

“Everything is cyclical in sports betting … it all comes around, and we can overanalyze it or write about it until doomsday,” Vaccaro said.

Heading into this postseason, the team with the league’s best record, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led the league in the scoring defense (91.1 points) and field-goal percentage defense (43 percent). The defending champion Celtics are right behind, ranking second in both categories.

Even so, Vaccaro said he wasn’t too concerned about the possibility of another defense-heavy NBA playoffs. This is partly because, on the other side of the ledger, stands teams such as the Western Conference’s top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, who led the league in scoring for most of the year before finishing third at 106.9 points per game.

Teams such as the Lakers help the over/under results even out, as well as drawing two-way action on the totals for each game. The public gives heavy action on the over in games involving the Lakers and other popular teams. The volume of bets from these bettors can’t be taken for granted, Vaccaro said.

“This is where the art comes in a little more than the science,” Vaccaro said. “You always have to play to your fan base. There are some intangibles that come into play, especially in Nevada, where you have a captive audience.

“The guy that comes in to bet his parlay is going to take the Lakers and over tied to the Cavaliers and the over. We’re willing to give up that bet for the opportunity to have a little space on the other side.”

In other words, the sports books would rather lose to the tourists than the wise guys, which is why Vaccaro and his colleagues won’t hesitate to significantly lower an NBA playoff total if it will reduce their liability on the under.

“The guy who comes in to parlay the Lakers and over, he doesn’t care if the total is 207 or 217 … he’s still betting it over,” Vaccaro said.

Last year’s results seem to bear out Vaccaro’s point. In the Eastern Conference finals that pitted Boston against the defensive-oriented Detroit Pistons, the under was 4-2 for the series. Against the Lakers in the NBA Finals, the record was 3-3.

Of course, for every adjustment that comes from oddsmakers there’s another that comes from professional handicappers. Steve Merril of Covers Experts says there’s still value to be found in NBA playoff lines, even though it’s not as easy as simply betting all the unders.

“There are still plenty of opportunities to profit in the NBA playoffs -- on both sides and totals -- but you have to treat each series and each game separately,” Merril said.

“I particularly like to play reversals after an extremely high-scoring or low-scoring game. The public and oddsmakers normally over-adjust the total for the next game, and there is value going the other way, especially if the previous game had unusually high or low shooting percentages.”

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