Playoffs: Favorites love round 1

Apr 19, 2005 3:54 AM

It’s the final week of the NBA regular season with the playoffs starting this weekend. The real season can now begin.

Sports bettors love to look at favorites. The two times in the sports calendar where the favorites seem to have a distinct edge is the second round of the NFL playoffs (a rested home team with two weeks to prepare against a team that just played), and the first round of the NBA playoffs.

While many of us look for value with big underdogs to win a series, it doesn’t happen often in the opening round of the NBA postseason.

Sure, you can find slight underdogs in an evenly matched series that pull some upsets, but you’ll find many six, eight, ten and even 15-to-1 favorites for a series in the NBA. Rarely are they even tested, let alone upset. A year ago, all eight favorites won the first round series, combining for a 32-7 record. The favorites also enjoyed a 23-16 mark against the spread.

Game 7 is the most important game in a playoff series, but which is next? Possibly, Game 1. In the history of the NBA playoffs, the team that wins the opener goes on to take the series 80 percent of the time. This is especially true in the first round where several low-seeded teams that are fortunate to even make it to the postseason often oppose higher seeded teams that are focused on going all the way.

Because of this, the higher seeded teams are almost always fired up to win a series quickly. Some low-seeded teams are just happy to be there.

In addition, Game 1 of a series is far more important to the home team, which as the higher seed has to win that first game. If not, the homecourt advantage is lost. The visiting team has to play two games away from home and the attitude can be, "We need to win just one of the first two games."

This makes Game 1 not as urgent as for the visiting team. There is a sense of pride, too, as the favored team wants to defend their home court edge.

A year ago in the first round, the home court edge was particularly evident in the East. Eastern Conference teams went 4-0 SU/3-1 ATS in Game 1, winning that first game by an average of 17 points, taking no prisoners. The East teams ended up going 16-4 SU, 13-7 ATS in all the first round games, although three of the teams (Indiana, New Jersey, Detroit) were clearly superior to the lower-seeded opponents

In fact, the Pacers thumped Boston 4-0 SU/ATS, winning by 16, 13, 23 and 15 points! The Pistons went 4-1 SU/ATS over the Bucks, while the Nets went 4-0 SU/3-1 ATS in a four-game sweep of the Knicks. While the Miami/New Orleans series went the full seven games, note that the home team won every game.

In the more competitive West, the favorites went 16-3 SU in the first round, though just 10-9 ATS. On the other hand, in Game 1 the home team/favorite went 4-0 SU/3-1 ATS and won by an average of 12 points. The Lakers ran into a tough Houston defense and won the first game just 72-71 as an 8-point favorite. However, the other three Game 1s were blowouts, with the Kings beating Dallas 116-105, the T-wolves topping Denver 106-92 and San Antonio crushing Memphis by 98-74.

In 2003, the favorites went 7-1 in the opening round. The only upset was the Celtics surprising the Pacers in six games, despite not having home court advantage. So what happened in that all-important first game? The Celtics won 103-100 at Indiana as a +6½ dog. Don’t be surprised if the home teams play fired up basketball this weekend, especially in that all-important Game 1.