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Handicapping the Conference Finals

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/18/2008

After a few weeks of preliminaries, all remaining teams have a legitimate shot to win the championship.

Nobody has jumped out so far as being head and shoulders above the rest. Even in the Final Eight, you could probably make the case that seven teams had a chance to go the distance. Orlando wasn't good enough. The second team out, Utah, was a popular darkhorse pick by pundits much of the season. Everybody else either had a past track record, or a recent track record plus home court advantage.

Unfortunately, instead of seeing very competitive games on a nightly basis, we watched many teams just trading home court blowouts. That put handicapping on a back burner. You just had to ask yourself whether it was time to bet against the pattern or not. I was surprised at how many teams would just kind of call it a night if they fell behind on the road. I don't expect to see that in the championship round.

I thought it might be a good exercise for us to go back and review what's happened the past two seasons in the championship rounds. If this year's "home teams rule" phenomenon finally stops amongst the Final Four, it will be good to remember what real basketball looked like!

Let's take a brief trip back to May of 2006 and 2007. I'll start in the East.


Series: Miami beats Detroit 4-2

ATS: Miami beats Detroit 5-1

Dogs: 2-4 ATS

Bounce Backs: 3-2 ATS

Totals: 0-6 to the Under

Key Points: It's easy to forget that Detroit was a heavy series favorite. Miami would advance here and go on to beat Dallas for the championship. What jumps out at me most here are the 5-1 ATS mark for Miami, and the 0-6 record to the Under. It was a Miami and Under series, and it just never changed! It's impossible to know for certain before a series starts what the flow is going to be. But after Miami and Under went 4-0 in the first two games, that combo still went 7-1 the rest of the way! Handicappers who like playing "bounce backs," meaning they take the team that lost the prior game outright, went 3-2 in this series. Not as successful as just riding Miami…but a winning record. Those who like to focus on underdogs because playoff games are so competitive were disappointed with a 2-4 mark.


Series: Cleveland beats Detroit 4-2

ATS: Cleveland bests Detroit 6-0 (running the table!)

Dogs: 3-3 ATS

Bounce Backs: 2-3 ATS

Totals: 3-3

Key Points: Detroit went 1-11 ATS in championship action the last two years! That shows you very clearly that the team and the coach couldn't ever figure out how to make adjustments when things weren't going well. And, it shows you that the market kept expecting them to make adjustments anyway. It's very odd to see a situation like this where the line never "catches up." Detroit underachieved very badly against Miami. A year later, they were even worse ATS against Cleveland. Now, that's not a guarantee that Detroit will struggle again this year. Just be aware that head coach Flip Saunders has established that he's not a chess player…and that he's not able to come up with workable solutions if things aren't going well.

In other news, the bounce backs didn't work out (because Detroit couldn't bounce back). Totals split out, with three Overs following three Unders. We still see a 3-9 trend to the Under over the last two years. I believe the East is a defense first conference. Game Underdogs split out here, and were 5-7 ATS over the two years. It's interesting that series underdogs went 11-1 ATS, but the puppies lost money on a game-by-game basis.

Let's see what happened out West.


Series: Dallas beat Phoenix 4-2

ATS: Split at 3-3 ATS

Dogs: 4-2 ATS

Bounce Backs: 2-3 ATS

Totals: 2-4 to the Under

Key Points: This was an odd series in that the favorite lost the opener at home, but then won four of the next five games. It was also a series that started fast then got slow. That makes sense because Phoenix runs and guns, while Dallas prefers the halfcourt game. Once Dallas was able to impose its preferred style on the series, they were in control. The combination of Dallas and Under was 7-3 ATS after that first game loss at home.

We do see game underdogs make some money here. But, bounce backs lose. Many "old school" gamblers are decrying the "death" of the "zig zag."


Series: San Antonio beat Utah 4-1

ATS: San Antonio beat Utah 4-1

Dogs: 0-5 ATS

Bounce Backs: 2-2 ATS

Totals: 4-1 to the Over

Key Points: Utah came from the soft side of the brackets last year, and really wasn't a true contender. San Antonio made that very clear early on, and coasted to an easy win. The only Spurs loss came in Game Three on the road. We've seen again this year that teams with a 2-0 series lead will often take that game off so they're prepared for the rest of the series. This was more like a second round series, or even an opening round series in that sense.

You can see that bounce backs weren't anything special and dog lovers became dog haters. It's surprising to see a series have this many Overs. That tells you how soft Utah's defense was, and sheds light on the consequences of their tendency to foul everyone who drives the paint. I'd say that's a Utah "characteristic" that probably doesn't need to be in a discussion of championship rounds.

Summing them up:

Series Underdogs: 15-8 ATS

Game Underdogs: 9-14 ATS

Bounce Backs: 9-10 ATS

Totals: 9-14 to the Under (5-13 if you throw out Utah's games)

What are those results hinting at?

*The championship rounds are more competitive than expected at the series level, with the series underdog offering clear value against the numbers.

*Strangely, game-by-game underdogs didn't offer that kind of value, and were in fact, big money burners. We just didn't see many games that went down to the wire. In fact, only seven of the 23 games were decided by five points or less. More than half (12 of 23) were decided by nine points or more, even though there was never a pointspread that high.

*Teams don't bounce back from a loss as often as people think they do.

*Even though there's an understanding that playoff games are lower scoring than regular season games, the betting market still hasn't fully captured that in the championship rounds.

I think those are good general rules to remember as you handicap this year's conference championship action. Look at the traditional matchup factors like defense, rebounding, ball-handling, coaching, and experience. We've discussed those in the past. Be careful not to let faulty shortcuts send you in the wrong direction. Game underdogs don't necessarily offer value at this level even if series underdogs do. Teams don't bounce back from losses as often as you'd expect. Trailing teams either don't make adjustments, or don't have any workable options to turn to.

Ignore these facts at your own risk!

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