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NBA Playoffs: Read and React

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/22/2008

One of the most important elements of NBA Playoff handicapping is having the ability to "read and react" to each series as it develops.
Pro basketball is a sport of ebb and flow.

Shooters blow hot and cold. Officiating is inconsistent. Some coaches know how to make adjustments while others don't. Some teams have dramatic home/road splits while others don't. You can't make up your mind before a series starts about how things are going to go on a game-by-game basis.

Game Two may barely resemble Game One, even though it's the same players trying to do the same things on the same court. Game Three brings everyone to a new arena. The deeper you get, the more things change. There are huge differences between a seventh game in a series and a first game, as you avid fans of the sport know.

Today I want to provide some tips on monitoring a series on the fly. If you follow the proper guidance, you'll consistently be one step ahead of the oddsmakers. If you don't, you'll find yourself zigging when the teams are zagging.

*THREE-POINT SHOOTING
This is probably the single most volatile element in the game of basketball. Teams who get hot from long range are able to run away and hide. If a team goes 12 of 24 from behind the arc, they're very likely to win and cover the game. If they go 4 of 24, they've got little chance to be competitive.

Can you know ahead of time which teams will post which extreme? Not really. Three-point extremes are largely random. But history has shown that the predictive value comes in the NEXT game when teams regress to the mean. You don't want to back a team that just shot lights out from long range. They're about to cool off. You don't want to go against a team that just had a bad shooting game (assuming they've got some guys who have a decent history from long range). They're about to heat up.

What people see as the ebb and flow in a series is often just this pesky stat running rampant! Be sure you're monitoring the stat in every single game so you can account for the pollution it causes. If both teams have a normal game, then you can trust the data. If not, be sure you anticipate that regression the next time out.

*FREE THROW ATTEMPTS
Officiating is inconsistent in the NBA, even though the league tries to get the best referees in uniform during the postseason. Some guys call things very closely, resulting in a lot of free throws. Other guys let the players play, leading to lowing scoring games and a lot of bruises.

Be sure you know the role officiating has played in prior results, particularly when you're trying to handicap totals. I've seen series in the past where two-point and three-point shooting largely stayed consistent in every game…with the Over/Unders being determined almost exclusively by free throw attempts. A 94-90 game that stays Under with certain refs will be a 104-100 game that goes Over with others.

With the understanding that officials rotate around the different series, this is another stat where you should expect a regression to the mean. Bet on the opposite of what just happened total-wise in a game that showed an extreme in one direction or another.

*BE AWARE THAT MANY SERIES "SETTLE" BY GAME THREE
It often takes a couple of games for the superior team to figure out what works best in terms of matchup advantages. And, it often takes a couple of games for the inferior team to run out of adrenalin. This leads to an interesting phenomenon in first round matchups where an early zig-zag just zigs the rest of the way.

I went back and looked at last year's data. In the eight first round series, the team that covered Game Three went on to post a 14-3 ATS record in the remaining games! That means they were 22-3 ATS counting those third games! The old school perception that results keep alternating back and forth didn't hold up at all. They alternated at first, but then the superior teams just kept expressing their superiority from game three forward.

This is a very important factor to keep in mind when reading and reacting. Those first two games might not be saying what you think they're saying. Inferior teams can compete when there's gas in the tank. Once they run out, they have trouble competing. It's our job to calculate their consumption rate!

I understand that sometimes the indicators will conflict. That's the nature of handicapping. The good news is that GREAT situations will come up where energetic underdogs will catch a favorite napping in a second game of a series after the favorite just shot lights out, or, deeper in the series, where a superior team will be in a powerful bounce back position just as a lesser team is running out of gas.

Applying the proper reading skills will help you pass at the right times, and help you play at the right times. Be sure you're watching the games and reading the boxscores. If you're not reading, you can't react!

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