The NBA regular season ends on Wednesday with the Playoffs beginning Saturday and Sunday when all 16 teams are to play their first games of the best of seven opening round series.
As we go to press on Monday only one Playoff team remains to be determined and the Lakers will earn that spot with a win on Wednesday at home over Houston or if Utah loses either at Minnesota on Monday or at Memphis on Wednesday.
Utah holds the tie breaker edge with the Lakers, and two wins by the Jazz would give them a 44-38 record. After Sunday’s win over San Antonio, the Lakers are 44-37 and get two nights of rest before hosting the Rockets.
Of course the big news of the weekend was the ACL injury to Lakers star Kobe Bryant – an injury expected to sideline the future Hall of Famer from six to nine months. Dwight Howard will have to carry more of the load if the Lakers are to have any chance of pulling an opening round upset, and the enigmatic star did have a solid game in Sunday’s upset of San Antonio.
The loss by the Spurs all but hands the West’s top seed to Oklahoma City.
The Thunder are up by a game on the Spurs and can clinch that top seed with a win over Sacramento on Monday or over Milwaukee on Wednesday even if the Spurs win their final two games, one at home, one on the road.
Earning top seed becomes even more important now that Bryant is out for the Lakers, making LA’s chances of winning more than just one game a longshot. As such that top seeded team should be well rested before a second round matchup of what should be a very competitive opening round series between the fourth seeded LA Clippers and either Denver or Memphis.
The Nuggets and Grizzlies each have two games remaining with Denver starting the week with a one game lead on Memphis and holding the tie breaker edge by having defeated the Grizzlies in three of four meetings, making that first round matchup most likely between the Clippers and Memphis. As the No. 3 seed Denver would face the 6 seed, either Houston or Golden State.
Likely 2 seed San Antonio would face the 7 seed. The Rockets and Warriors are tied with identical records with two games to play with Houston holding the tie breaker.
Thus the likely opening round series in the Western Conference appear to be Oklahoma City vs. the Lakers, San Antonio vs. Golden State, Denver vs. Houston and Clippers vs. Memphis.
Things are a bit more settled in the East where the top four seeds are Miami, New York, Indiana and Brooklyn. Boston is seeded seventh, Milwaukee eighth.
Thus Miami will open against Milwaukee, the Knicks will face Boston. The fifth and sixth seeds remain undetermined with Atlanta up by one over Chicago, each with two games to go.
Chicago holds the tie breaker edge, which means this battle might well be determined on the season’s final night when the Bulls host Washington and Atlanta is at New York. Indiana will face the sixth seed. Brooklyn will play the fifth seeded team.
Handicapping the Playoffs is different from rating the regular season. In the Playoffs teams face one another for as many as seven straight times over a nearly two week period. There is a finite number of games a team can lose (four) before that team’s season is over.
Thus we will get different levels of effort depending upon the status of a series entering any given game.
A long standing strategy for handicapping and betting the Playoffs is the so called “zig zag” theory which advocates playing the loser of a game in its next game. Essentially you don’t play the first game of a series but then play the loser of Game 1 in Game 2, the loser of Game 2 in Game 3, etc.
The zig zag theory worked very well for many years but, as is often the case once a “system” becomes well publicized, its effectiveness and profitability drops, often precipitously.
While there remains merit to the zig zag theory it should not be applied indiscriminately. Rather, as has been the case more often even during regular season play, situational play is a preferred approach.
In a best of seven series, with the exception of the NBA Finals, the series is played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format with the team having the home court advantage playing Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 at home.
The degree of “pressure” on a team fluctuates throughout a series depending on the status of the series and the sense of urgency to win the next game.
One line of thinking holds that the home team is under pressure to win the first two games of a series and thus maintain its advantage when heading on the road for game three. At that point the pressure greatly intensifies as the lower seeded team would face elimination if it fails to win its first home game (Game 3).
When next week’s column is penned the matchups will not only be known but one game will have been played in each series, enabling more specific predictions about individual games and series flows to be made.
In the meantime the following general approaches and forecasts are presented.
Play the home team in Game 1 of a series if the line is -6 or less in the matchups of the 1 vs. 8 and 2 vs. 7 seeds.
Play the home team in Game 1 if the line is -3 or less in the matchups of 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 seeds.
If the home team loses the first game the play in Game 2 will be on that home team if they are laying no more than one more point than they laid in Game 1.
If the home team wins the first game the play in Game 2 will be the road team if they are getting at least the same number of points in Game 2 as in Game 1.
As to the series themselves, expect Miami to lose no more than one game against Milwaukee and the Lakers to win no more than one game against Oklahoma City (or San Antonio).
The Knicks should get past Boston in six games.
Of the top four seeds in the East Brooklyn (fourth seed) is the most likely to be upset by either Chicago or Atlanta. If the Nets face Chicago the Bulls would be playable to win the series if getting +130 or more. Atlanta would be playable to pull the upset if getting +160 or more.
In the West the only reasonable upset possibility would be for the LA Clippers to lose to the 5 seed, either Denver or Memphis. An upset by Denver has been made much less likely with the season ending injury to Danilo Gallinari but the Nuggets would still be worth a shot if getting +180 or more.
It is unlikely for either Houston or Golden State to win an opening round series as both the Rockets and Warriors will have won roughly 10 fewer games than their first round opponents and both are weaker at the defensive end of the court.
When in doubt, prefer the better defensive team, especially if the edge is more than minimal.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]