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NBA Playoff 'Capping

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/29/2008

In recent years we've seen a strategic trend that has dramatically shaped the way NBA playoff basketball is played. It's the hallmark of all successful teams of late. And, the teams who have failed to account for this trend are those who get eliminated pretty quickly.

I'm talking about the tendency for teams these days to find a weak spot on the opposing defense, and just keep attacking it ALL the time. They find a matchup advantage, then either post up a big guy when he's got an edge, or clear out the floor so a smaller guy with the edge can drive to the hoop. It's that simple, and that complicated!

Simple, because the offensive approach is as basic as it gets. Complicated, because defenses have to work very hard to avoid or cover up potential soft spots. I've written often in the past that defense and rebounding are what wins championships. This is the crux of the matter right here. Defenses that don't have vulnerabilities are very tough to beat! Opposing offenses don't have workable options and they typically only get one shot per possession because good defenses box out so well.

When you're handicapping an NBA playoff game, or a series, the most fundamental key is determining whether or not the defenses have a weak link in the chain that can be exploited by the weaponry of the other side. Once you've determined that, your sports wagering approach is fairly simple:

*If one team has a clear edge they can exploit, BET THAT TEAM!
*If neither team has a clear edge, BET THE UNDER
*If both teams have clear edges, BET THE OVER

What about the tendency for playoff matchups to zig zag with losing teams bouncing back to win? That still happens. But it happens much less often than it used to. And, the reason for that is this relatively recent strategic change.

In the past, offenses would say, "We're going to do what we always do, you try and stop us!" Defenses learned how to do that, particularly in longer term rivalries where the players and coaches saw each other a lot. Now, offenses are saying, "We"re going to find your weak spot and make you pay." Once one team establishes they can do that, and the other can't, the series is pretty much over.
Bounce backs and zig zags still happen when the superior team relaxes its intensity because they get overconfident. And, they still happen in evenly matched series where whoever gets hot happens to win that night. Any longtime follower of the NBA will tell you they're much less common now than they were 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.

So, as you handicap the remaining first round games, and the rest of the playoffs, ask yourself these questions.

*Which defenses can throw up a brick wall that is very difficult to score on?
*Which defenses are pretty good, but have one gaping hole that can be exploited?
*Which defenses are mostly gaping holes?!

If you're looking at the teams from this perspective, playoff results make a lot of sense. The superior teams won't go undefeated in every round. Sometimes good teams relax when they shouldn't. Sometimes the lesser teams shoot lights out from long range and steal a cover. But for the most part, the series will be controlled by the team with the less vulnerable defense. There won't be an "ebb and flow" like there was in the past. There will be a relatively steady flow in one direction with an occasional respite.

The teams with the gaping holes are going to be in big trouble. The teams with one gaping hole may advance past the first round, but will be in trouble against championship contenders. The teams that can throw up a brick wall will be playing for a championship.

Isn't that the story of the current San Antonio Spurs dynasty? Isn't that how Cleveland and Detroit have won Eastern Conference championships? Isn't that why exciting, up tempo teams LOSE in the playoffs while boring defensive minded teams win? Up tempo teams create holes in their own defense, and wear out the legs of their players at the same time. Boring, patient teams always have enough energy to play defense, while doing what it takes to find a soft spot they can exploit when they have the ball.

I'm sure you've been watching many of the first round games this year already. They've followed this outline very closely, haven't they?
Make sure you're not using a handicapping approach from the wrong decade. If you want to pick winners now, you have to know what's happening now!

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