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The Zig-Zag Theory
by Bryan Leonard - 05/02/2011
Let’s talk about zigzags. No, that’s not some ski slope maneuver. Nor is it someone who says one thing and then does another. Sports bettors may be familiar with zigzagging when it comes to handicapping the NBA playoffs.
One rule many bettors keep in mind during the playoffs is that teams that lose a game and play poorly may look very different the next game. That is, they can get that bad game out of their system, make adjustments, and come back playing very well the next game. The team that plays that poor game is often getting points the next game, too, which is another plus. Normally this happens with visiting teams playing Game 1 on the road, for instance, and they lose, but could zigzag the next game and get the money, or maybe even a straight up win.
Most Game 1 visiting teams are underdogs, which was the case in the first round of this year’s NBA playoffs. In fact, almost all the visitors were big dogs in Game 1. Remember that there’s more pressure on the home team to give a strong performance in the first game as they’ve worked hard all season to get that home court advantage, and they don’t want to blow it in the first game. That doesn’t just go for the first round of the playoffs, but all the rounds. And the visiting team is not thinking about getting a sweep in the first two games, but simply salvaging a split, which is a big edge for the visitors and a downer for the home team.
For instance, the Atlanta Hawks took care of business going up 3 games to 1 over the Orlando Magic, holding home court. Game 5 was back in Orlando and the Magic responded with a blowout win, 101-76. That win was so impressive that the general public, and the oddsmakers, made than the favorite for Game 6 even though it was at Atlanta. The money came in on the home dog and the zig-zag theory held court as the underdog Hawks won straight up, 84-81, leading most of the way and closing out the series.
Strong defensive teams have a big edge in the postseason. Teams that rely on a breakneck offensive pace to try and defeat opponents (Knicks, Denver) are at a disadvantage for a couple of reasons. First, there are some nights when the outside shooting isn’t there, even for great offensive teams. A few years ago in Game 2 of the Kings/Mavericks series, both teams shot under 38% despite the fact that both preferred the uptempo style. It really wasn’t great defense but either side, it was simply a lot of open outside shots didn’t go down. And that happens. When that happens, poor defensive teams don’t have anything to fall back on to try and keep them in the game. This is what happened to the Knicks against the Celtics, having no defense to go to in games 3 and 4 at home, losing and failing to cover either.
Secondly, you win championships in all sports with defense, not offense. When Shaq and Kobe first came up with the Lakers, they continually had sensational – almost unstoppable – offensive teams, but they kept flaming out in the playoffs. The reason was that they were a poor defensive team under coaches Del Harris and Kurt Rambis. It wasn’t until Phil Jackson arrived to teach the value of defense that the Lakers took off, winning three straight titles.
In 2003, it was no coincidence that two of the top three defensive teams in the NBA met in the Finals (the Spurs and Nets), while strong offensive teams like the Kings, Lakers, Mavericks went out early that season. The worst defensive teams in this year’s postseason (Knicks, Nuggets) are already gone.
The Patriots have won three of four Super Bowls a few years ago with defense leading the way, even shutting down the talented Rams’ offense in 2001, but haven’t won since as their offense became better than their defense. And who can forget Tampa Bay’s No. 1 defense smacking the No. 1 Raiders’ offense a decade ago? The Spurs have won 4 NBA titles the last 11 years with defense as the focal point of the team, not offense. Keep an eye on the zig-zag theory in the second round of the playoffs. Because with stronger defensive teams likely advancing, it’s something to keep an eye on in the next few rounds.