Makinen: NBA playoff first-round trends




When you consider that the NBA playoff goes on typically for over two months, it essentially is a second season. Unfortunately, with the enhanced stakes as compared to the regular season, there are a lot of different factors that go into handicapping the proceedings. First, with the series aspect, you have a situation where teams are facing one another up to seven consecutive times. This leads to a lot of ebb and flow. Knowing how teams react to wins and losses at this time of year is key. Second, winning games is crucial. Unlike the regular season, individual stats, and perhaps point spreads even, don’t tend to matter as much. Thirdly, and this can’t be overstated, if players can play, they will. Unlike the regular season where injuries and workload days off run rampant, you’ll typically get the best a team has to offer for every game, although the recent admissions by Pelicans’ star Zion Williamson might have some bettors questioning even that.

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After what was a far-from-satisfying regular season for most NBA apologists, this is the time of year when they are supposedly validated. For NBA bettors, it can be a tricky time as well, as they are finally getting to utilize trends and systems that come when teams are playing with equal motivation. When analyzing the games over the next couple of months, it’s most important to arm yourself with logic-based historical trends and systems from recent playoff action. In this article, the first of what will be a round-based series, I am going to help uncover some of that information, sharing some of the most prominent recent betting data that has affected the NBA playoffs, with a focus on the first round. I will be doing this same type of analysis for each of the rounds as the postseason progresses. Look for the second round of analysis in a few weeks.

Looking back quickly at some recent playoff results, one should first acknowledge the success of outright winners in postseason games. In fact, after last year’s 78-9 ATS record for outright winners, they are now on a three-year run of 227-23-6 ATS, a winning percentage of 90.8%. In other words, if you believe an underdog has a chance to cover a point spread, you should also consider their ability to win outright as well. Alternatively, rather than buying lines down, or backing favorites on money lines, laying the actual point spread has proven a better strategy. In addition, for those interested in overall home/road trends in recent playoff action, note that hosts are 100-72 SU and 88-83-1 ATS (51.5%) in the last two postseasons.

Let’s get right into breaking down the opening round. For those that believe this round is far too prolonged and even a waste of time, there have been 13 lower-seeded teams to advance in the last 10 years of the playoffs. However, 10 of them were #5 seeds beating #4’s, and the three others were #6 seeds over #3 seeds. For those of you expecting a Hawks advancement in the East over Boston, or a Lakers defeat of Memphis, or either Milwaukee or Denver losing, these series results would be unprecedented when considering the past decade. The last “seed upset” of that magnitude came in 2012 when #8 Philadelphia knocked out #1 Chicago. Accurately spotting potential upsets is a good start to making profits in your postseason wagering. Hopefully, some of what I unveil coming up will help you do that. Even if not, there are still plenty of other key systems that should assist in navigating the first-round action, not only by series but on a game-by-game basis as well.

Series Trends

Naturally being able to predict an upset in a series will give you a leg up on a game-by-game wagering basis as well, but perhaps equally important is being able to find the heavier underdogs that wind up being more competitive than expected and push the favorites to the limit in series. Of course, vice versa can be equally profitable, finding favorites that will sweep through a first-round series easily. Take a look at some of these series trends based on won-lost records at various time lengths of the regular season.

–  There have been 18 first-round sweeps over the last 10 playoff seasons, with three coming by lesser-seeded teams. Interestingly, in eight of those, the better-seeded team had a worse ATS record over the last half-season, last 20 games, and last 10-game time periods. In other words, ignore any late-season ATS trend data that might have you considering a potential upset or longer series. This includes the Lakers/Grizzlies series for ’23, as the latter did have lesser records in all three of those late-season time frames.

–  There is actually a better chance that a #1-#8 or #2-#7 series goes longer if the better seed had a better ATS record in the latter parts of the season. In fact, in 11 of the last 17 series of these seed types that went six or seven games, the better seed had a better ATS record in the last half-season and last 10-game time periods. This would suggest the Boston-Atlanta series has a better chance of going to 6+ games than the Memphis-LA Lakers clash. In terms of the #1s and their potential matchups, Milwaukee had a worse last 10-game ATS record than any of its three potential opponents, thus suggesting an easy 4 or 5 games series eventually for the Bucks. Denver’s toughest potential opponents by this analysis would figure to be OKC, as neither the Timberwolves nor Pelicans provide any meaningful advantage.

–  The last 10-game outright records can also be an indicator of a #1-#8 or #2-#7 series that could go longer. In nine of the last 17 matchups of those seeds to go six games or longer, the worse seed had an equal or better record in the last 10 games of the regular season.

–  In 13 of the last 14 #4-5 and #3-6 series that ended in upsets (worse-seeded team winning), the teams had overall won-lost records within four games of one another. This is in play for all four of these series in 2023. In 15 of the last 26 #4-5 & #3-6 series that ended with the better seed winning, the better seed won at least five more games in the regular season than the opponent.

–  There has been a significant benchmark in the success of the lowered-seeded team at 10 wins less than the opponent over the last 10 playoff years. If more than 10 regular season wins separate the teams, not a single worse-seeded team has won a series. averaging just 1.16 game wins per series, with 10 sweeps in 31 series. Only four of those teams pushed a series to seven games. For 2023, the Bucks, Nuggets, and Celtics all won at least 11 or more games in the regular season than their first-round opponents.

–   When 10 or fewer wins have separated the teams, the worse-seeded team won an average of 2.36 games per series, including 14 of those 49 series wins. Only five times did a team get swept, and only nine other times did it win just a single game. This would seem to suggest that the Lakers, Nets, Warriors, Knicks, and Clippers have reasonable shots of pushing their series to at least six games.

–   Only two of the last 23 playoff better seeds that won at least four more games against the spread in the regular season have lost a series. The 21 winning teams lost only 1.38 games per series as well. In essence, it is important that teams played well against the spread in the regular season. Boston, Philadelphia, and Sacramento will enjoy this advantage in the first round of 2023.

–  Using the records from the second half of the season has also revealed quality underdogs. When the worse-seeded team had an equal or better record in the second half of the season, they won six of the last 15 series while going 45-45 outright in games. The Knicks and Lakers would figure to be the most live underdogs by this logic.

–  Alternatively, when there were five games or better records in the second half of the season for the better seed, all 32 won their series’ while going 128-36 SU. Furthermore, only one of the 32 worse-seeded teams pushed the series to seven games. Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia will be the beneficiaries of this angle in 2023.

–  There is an interesting benchmark for worse-seeded teams at 48 wins (59%+) or more. Those that reach that regular season mark have gone 7-19 in series, and 67-86 (43.8%) in individual games over the last 10 postseasons. Those that have 58% or less (47-35 in full season) are just 7-47 in series and 85-200 (29.8%) in individual games. None of the teams seeded #5-#8 this season won more than 47 games.

–  Of the last 12 better seed sweeps, all 12 had better records in the second half of the season, only one had a worse record in their last 20 games, and only two won fewer of their last 10 games. According to this, Boston and Phoenix have the best chance at first-round sweeps, as they are the only teams with advantages over their opponents in all three time ranges.

First-Round Game Trends by Line/Total Range

–  Big favorites have held a significant edge. Since the start of the 2014 playoffs, NBA first-round favorites of 8.5 points or more are 76-10 SU and 52-34 ATS (60.5%). However, in the 2022 playoffs, these teams were just 4-4 SU and 2-6 ATS. They also went 6-2 UNDER the total, putting up 106.4 PPG, a one-year drop of 22.8 PPG!

–   Bigger road favorites are also a solid bet. Only eight of the last 45 road favorites of 4.5 points or more have lost outright, going 37-8 SU and 30-14-1 ATS (68.2%).

–   First-round home favorites of 4 points or less have proven to be a bad investment lately, as over the last nine playoff seasons, they are just 33-32 SU and 24-38-1 ATS (38.7%).

–  The 2022 NBA first-round playoffs saw 27 UNDERs, 16 OVERs (62.8%)

–  With the meteoric rise in NBA scoring over the last few years, it is interesting to note that in the lowest totaled first-round playoff games over the last four postseasons, 218 or less, UNDER the total is 45-27-3 (62.5%). In all games with totals above 218, OVER the total is 50-42-2 (54.3%).

Last Game Trends

–  Home teams are a better wager when coming off a win in a series. Home teams coming off a win in the prior game of a series are 59-32 SU and 50-41 ATS (54.9%) since 2016. Those coming off a loss are 64-57 SU and 52-66-3 ATS (44.1%) in that same span. Naturally, the latter are often the lower-seeded team in a series but this is a good indication of how momentum aids a team.

–  Blowout losses carry over. There is a bit of a misconception when it comes to teams bouncing back from rough first-round losses. In fact, teams that lost their previous game by 10 points or more are just 64-120 SU and 74-107-3 ATS (40.9%) in the next contest since 2013.

–  Heartbreaking losses have a galvanizing effect. Teams that lose close games, or those decided by 3 points or less in the first round of the NBA playoffs have bounced back with a 36-10 SU and 32-12-2 ATS (72.7%) mark in the next game since 2014. In the line range of +5 to -5, these teams are on an amazing 23-3 SU and 20-4-2 ATS (83.3%) surge!

First-Round Trends by Game Number

–  Nearly three of every four home teams win the opening game. Home teams have gone 51-21 SU and 37-35 ATS (51.4%) over the last 10 seasons.

–  Upsets occur in Game One with lines of -7.5 or less. Of the last 29 first-round Game Ones with home favorites of 8 points or more, there have only been four upsets. However, in Game Ones with home favorites of 7.5 points or less, hosts are only 21-17 SU and 18-20 ATS (47.4%) over the last 10 playoff seasons.

–  In the last three playoff seasons played at home courts, Game Ones have gone UNDER the total at a 17-7 (70.8%) rate.

–  Over the last 3 non-neutral playoff seasons, first-round Game Two hosts are on a 13-3 SU and ATS (81.3%) run.

–  Opening game home winners are a solid Game Two bet. Contrary to popular “ying-and-yang” bettors’ beliefs, home teams that won in Game One of a first-round series are 26-7 SU and 24-9 ATS (72.7%) since ’16.

–  Game Twos with double-digit home favorites have gone UNDER the total at a 12-3 (80%) clip since ’13, with only four of the visiting foes eclipsing 100 points.

–  First-round Game Three home teams went just 1-7 SU and ATS (12.5%) in 2022 and are now just 6-18 SU and 7-17 ATS (29.2%) since 2019.

–  The better Game Three home teams are those coming off a win in Game Two. They are 9-9 SU and 8-10 ATS (44.4%) in their last 18 tries, while those that lost in Game Two are on a 4-14 SU and 5-13 ATS (27.8%) skid.

–  Game Three point spreads most often tell the story, as hosts of 4.5 points or more are on an 11-1 SU and 10-2 ATS (83.3%) stretch since ’13, while home dogs of 4.5 points or more are just 2-14 SU and 5-10-1 ATS (33.3%) in that same span.

–  Game Three home teams in the +4 to -4 line range are currently on a brutal skid of 5-16 SU and 4-16-1 ATS (20%) since ’17.

–  Game Four home teams in the +3 to -3 line range have fared well recently, going 18-8 SU and 18-7-1 ATS (72%) since ’13.