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Let's Talk Zig Zag!
by Bryan Leonard - 05/05/2012
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.
This can happen when a home team either loses Game 1 of a series or plays poorly. If they lose, the pressure is on for them to play a monster game and even up the series before heading out for Game 3 on the road. Indiana played a stinker of a Game 1 at home against Orlando, losing 81-77 as 9-point chalk. What happened? A good Indiana team simply had a bad game, shooting 34%. "Y'all look real stunned," Magic center Glen Davis said afterward, yelling at the crowd as he left the court. "Y'all look real stunned."
Perhaps Big Baby should have kept his mouth shut as the next game Indiana came back with a vengeance, winning 93-78, courtesy of a 30-13 third quarter. You get the sense that teams who pull that Game 1 upset are sometimes less inclined to play all out, knowing in the back of their minds that they already got what they wanted to – at least a split in the first two games. So from a betting standpoint you have one team highly motivated after a bad game in front of the home fans and the other team not in desperation mode.
Most Game 1 visiting teams are underdogs, which was the case in the first round of the NBA playoffs last year and this season. 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, a year ago 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 them 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 (Nuggets, Clippers) 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.
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 Celtics used their great defense to get to the Finals in 2008 and 2010 and last year the Mavericks were vastly improved defensively with newcomer Tyson Chandler – and won the whole thing.
The Spurs have won 4 NBA titles the last 12 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.