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NBA Playoff Handicapping

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/15/2007

The NBA playoffs get under way later this week. I wanted to give you some guidelines for making selections throughout the two months of pro hoops excitement.

Some of the strategies will be similar to what we used during our strong March Madness run in college hoops. However, there are a few key differences:

*Each NBA series is a best-of-seven, so there's an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity that's evident in this sport. In College hoops, any NCAA tournament game could be your last. That means the teams come with peak intensity every time they take the floor. Handicappers don't have to wonder if some might relax with a big series lead.

*Every game is played on somebody's home court. The NCAA tournament is neutral. There's obviously a big difference in this regard in terms of how certain teams play, and how some officials call the action in the paint.

*The teams know each other very well and get to know each other even better during the course of a long series. In the colleges, most postseason opponents you face are first-time looks. Coaches have limited time to prepare and adjust. In an NBA series, each team works to find the other's weakness so they can exploit it game after game.

*Most pro players have playoff experience. Some have extensive playoff experience. They're not overwhelmed by the atmosphere or the pressure. College kids don't get many cracks at March Madness. The best players tend to turn pro after a year or two anyway. So, nerves and maturity are an issue at the college level, but not the pros.

Those are some pretty big differences!

When handicapping the NBA playoffs, you've got to start with the basketball basics, then work in factors that are unique to the sport.

*Defense wins championships. Be sure you know which teams are strong defensively in terms of inside play, or at least forcing a tempo that makes opponents uncomfortable. The Phoenix Suns for example have a soft inside defense, but opponents often miss a bunch of three-pointers trying to race up and down the court with them. Focus on how each team's defensive approach will or won't work in each series.

*Rebounding is almost as important as defense. It creates second chance opportunities if you shoot and miss on offense. And, each rebound ends any opponent's possession on defense. It's like a steal in that regard. In the NBA playoffs, winning teams rebound.

*Execution is vital. At the higher levels it cancels out. You won't often seen turnovers be a big issue in the later rounds when the elite teams are playing each other. In early round action though, the turnover category is often the key difference between a power and a pretender.

*Scoring out of the halfcourt offense is a must. Postseason basketball often slows down into methodical action where each team spends much of the shot clock trying to work for an open look. The team that creates the most open looks usually wins.


*History has shown what's come to be called a zig-zag tendency in many matchups. The team that loses the first game often comes back to at least cover the second game. Then, things zig and zag from that point on as the team off a bad game makes adjustments that lead to improvement. Some years, just following this basic approach pads the bankroll. Other years, it's not so hot. I've definitely seen a tendency in recent seasons for the league powers to go as hard as they can in early rounds to get a sweep so they get extra rest and preparation time for the next round. This kills the zig-zag possibilities in some matchups. Look for it, but be cautious.

*Be sure you know the home/road ATS histories for each team. Some squads, particularly those new to the playoffs, have big troubles playing well on the road under postseason pressure. Because of turnovers and a lack of shooting confidence, they'll typically lose by double digits on the road. The lines won't be that high, so you'll want to go against poor road teams.

*Focus on personnel matchups, and the human chess factor of each series. This was a lot of fun to watch last year, as teams tried to figure out how to stop Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Gilbert Arenas, etc. If a team has figured out a way to score in their halfcourt set, and the opponent can't solve the riddle, then you'll have a sense of how the series is going to go from that alone. Sweeps happen when teams can't solve the riddle, meaning you'll want to take favorites. Thrillers happen when this category cancels out, meaning you'll want to take dogs.

Best of luck in the NBA playoffs this year. Amongst the Eastern Contenders of Detroit, Miami , Chicago, and Cleveland (sorry Toronto , not yet), and the Western Contenders of Dallas, Phoenix , and San Antonio (with potential hurdles provided by Utah , Houston , and Denver), we’re likely to see some fantastic showdowns. Star power will be out in full force. Apply the proper fundamentals to your analytical process so you can be a handicapping star!

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