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NBA Playoffs: Matchups are Key

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/12/2007

Fans of matchup handicapping approaches have really enjoyed the NBA playoffs so far. It's a lot like watching human chess. If you've been paying close attention, you've seen for yourself which coaches and veteran players are master chess players.

This isn't a great year for a just take all the underdogs approach, or just take the team that lost the last game to bounce back. Sure, those approaches work sometimes. For the most part though, the theme this year as been finding a matchup advantage and pounding it.

Head coaches have been doing that in their games. Winning handicappers have been doing that by staying in synch with the coaches!


* Golden State completely befuddled Dallas in a first round shocker with a creative defensive approach that took league MVP Dirk Nowitzki out of his game. Don Nelson knew Nowitzki's weaknesses because he used to coach in Dallas. Avery Johnson never came up with a counter-move that solved the problem. Golden State OWNED the series against the spread.

* San Antonio stuck like glue to Allen Iverson of Denver , knowing he'd force up bad shots with the game on the line. Denver kept letting him force up bad shots, and the Spurs coasted to a series win and a late cover streak.

* Chicago realized early on against Miami that the Heat had nobody that could guard Luol Deng or Ben Gordon. They kept the ball in the hands of those guys, and stormed to a surprising 4-0 sweep. Miami had no workable options on defense in that matchup. The Bulls covered three of the games and would have covered them all if not for blowing a big first game lead.

* Detroit watched the film from that series, and focused heavily on Deng and Gordon in their second round matchup with Chicago . Those guys were neutralized, and nobody else could score in a dismal Chicago showing. The Vegas spread was nowhere near the final score in the first three games.

* Phoenix and Cleveland also exploited clear matchup advantages in dominant first round routs. Cleveland swept Washington while never looking like they broke a sweat. Phoenix would have swept the LA Lakers if they hadn't fallen asleep after taking a big lead in Game Three.

Do you see what I mean about human chess? Find an edge - exploit it - get the series over with as soon as possible.

Bettors who kept assuming that emotion would trigger strong performances after a loss were throwing good money after bad. Miami was going to bounce back in the Chicago series; there was no way the best team in the regular season (Dallas) would get dispatched in the first round; the TV networks wouldn't let Kobe Bryant and the Lakers get knocked out quickly, and so on, and so on.

Look, if two teams are dead even, and there are no clear matchup edges to exploit, then emotions DO matter. Late in an evenly matched series with no edges, the breaks of the game will send somebody to the next round in a way that invites conspiracy theories. That's not what's going on right now. Master chess players are making the right moves at the right times. As bettors, we've got to recognize that and take advantage of the bad pointspreads!

Here's a quick assessment of the chess-playing abilities of the eight teams that reached the second round of the playoffs:

* Detroit: true chess masters thanks to a smart coach and veteran stars.

* San Antonio : same story, though some of the bench guys are getting old.

* Phoenix : getting better in this regard every year.

* Golden State : brilliant coach but erratic players.

* Utah : blue collar at it's best.

* Cleveland : better than you realize, but still young and learning.

* New Jersey : a few very smart spots, but lacking depth.

* Chicago : can exploit the obvious, but too young to do more than that.

I'm very much looking forward to studying the matchups the rest of the way in what's been a fascinating NBA postseason. Make sure you're studying the coaching strategies as you make picks game-by-game from now through the championships. More surprises may be in store. It's our job to see them coming before the oddsmakers do.

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