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Hoop Changes, Shifts, and Showdowns

   by Al McMordie - 02/14/2005

Things are not always as they appear. That’s a key for sports handicappers when analyzing basketball games. For instance, the Chicago Bulls have been a big surprise this season, getting hot after a very poor start. A collection of young talent has blossomed into a decent, cohesive unit and the Bulls have themselves a nice team. It’s certainly a relief for Bulls’ fans, who’ve suffered through a wasteland of losses ever since you-know-who retired after leading the Bulls to their 6th NBA title in eight years after the 1998 campaign.

If you want to identify the single most important factor to the Bulls success this season it’s obvious: Defense. Chicago has turned into a strong unit when it comes to harassing the opposition and preventing points. Most of the season, anyway. A look at the overall statistics finds the Bulls one of the toughest teams in the NBA when it comes to opposing shooting percentages.

However, it’s essential to take a closer look, and a look with a grain of salt. Over the last three weeks the Bulls have been terrible defensively. Perhaps it’s the grind of a long season. Perhaps opposing coaches are noticing what the Bulls have been doing and have made some adjustments in attacking them. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that this is a young team still learning the game. But the fact is that, despite still being very strong for the entire season, Chicago has struggled on defense lately. The Bulls have allowed several teams to shoot over 50% the last three weeks and were on a 9-0 'Over' the total run until Sunday's 'Under' vs. the Timberwolves. They allowed over 100 points in six of the last eight games. They could turn things around at some point, but it’s important from a sports betting perspective to look carefully at shifts like this that inevitably occur during the regular season. One might look at the overall stats and think, "Well, the Bulls should go 'Under' the total because oddsmakers are making their totals numbers too high." But the fact remains that the Bulls aren’t playing the type of rugged defense over the last month that they had for the previous three months.

Toronto is another good example. Most of the season, the Raptors were a terrific team at home and a miserable one on the road. However, notice that Toronto is suddenly very poor at home, going 2-4 SU/ATS the last five home contests. It’s not a question of oddsmakers overvaluing the Raptors at home. Instead, it’s even easier a problem to identify: No defense! The Raptors have allowed 106, 110, 100, 123, 100 and 106 points their last six home games. Taking it a step further, we are finding out more reasons why this is the case. Several players, including recently traded Raptors star Vince Carter, have spoken about having verbal (and in some cases, even physical) battles with Toronto’s head coach. This is also a situation worth monitoring closely, because an unhappy clubhouse can easily shift over onto the court, which can be reflected in poor play. That appears to be the case with Toronto, especially on defense. In their four recent home loses, Toronto was a favorite twice.

On the flip side of the coin, notice that the defending champion Pistons have suddenly begun to play like the defending champs, riding a 7-1 straight up and against the spread run. Defense has been the biggest reason, as they are beginning to play the same rough and tumble ‘D’ they rode to the title last year.

Finally, one other aspect to keep an eye on is "big games." Many times late in the season, there can be battles for playoff seedings and even division titles at stake. These take on greater importance, which can mean a strong defensive effort from both sides, meaning less scoring. I thought of this watching Shaq and Tim Duncan go toe to toe Sunday in a battle billed as an "NBA Finals Preview." Folks hammered the under, pushing it from 191 to 188½. And everyone cashed as the number landed on 188 in Miami’s 96-92 win. Keep a sharp eye out for changes as the NBA season begins to win down. Changes on the court can help you count change at the betting window.

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