There’s no question predicting series success correlates strongly with pointspread proficiency when it comes to the NBA Playoffs. This year’s results stand out in that regard.
In the West, Memphis went 10-1 ATS through the first two rounds. San Antonio covered the spread in 7 of 10.
In the East, Indiana went 8-4 ATS, including a perfect 6-0 SU and ATS mark at home in Indianapolis. Five of those six wins came by a double digit margin. Defending champion and prohibitive favorite to win the title, Miami, despite its “public” nature, has gone 6-3 ATS in their first two series, including a perfect 4-0 SU and ATS mark on the highway – the mark of a strong, veteran championship contender.
When we add it up, we’re talking about 67% or better ATS results here in the postseason from all four teams still standing, with an aggregate mark of 31-11 (73.8%) against the spread. If you can correctly predict the SU winner of any NBA playoff series and support that team in every game, you’re likely to emerge with significant pointspread success.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the two series on tap for the next two weeks.
San Antonio/Memphis: I read some reports that the Grizzlies’ first ever run to the Western Conference Finals was the result of key injuries to their opponents more than any other factor. The Clippers’ Blake Griffin got hurt in the first round, and OKC was without Russell Westbrook in Round 2. That is true, but the Spurs have been in the exact same situation – facing a Kobe-less, dysfunctional Lakers team in the first round, and an overachieving but still relatively limited Warriors squad with David Lee and Steph Curry both hobbled in Round 2.
Healthy teams win playoff series; banged up squads often struggle in that regard – that’s simply a fact of NBA postseason handicapping. And it certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to say any of the four remaining teams that suffer a key injury to one of their stars will be hard pressed to survive and advance to the Finals.
The Spurs opened at -135 over the Grizzlies at the LVH; bet up to -140 by tip-off of Game 1. That number was adjusted to the -250 range following San Antonio’s Game 1 domination. If Game 1 was the first you’ve watched in the playoffs, you’d probably think this series is a complete mismatch. The Spurs ran circles around the Grizzlies, repeatedly breaking down the Memphis defense with dribble penetration from Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies’ defensive rotations were a mess, leaving wide open shooters on the perimeter as they packed the paint to stop San Antonio from driving for easy layups. The result was a franchise career playoff high 14 made three pointers from the Spurs as part of a 53% shooting effort overall, including four trifectas each from role players Matt Bonner and Kawhi Leonard.
On the defensive end, San Antonio had the better game plan concentrating on shutting down the Grizzlies’ low post duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, a duo that tore up the Clippers and Thunder in the first two rounds. Randolph was held to 1-8 shooting without a single free throw attempt in a passive performance. His postgame quote: “Ain’t no excuse. They did a good job. You have to give them credit.”
The Spurs’ low post depth gave Randolph and Gasol problems all afternoon. Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw pushed the Grizzlies bigs around, and the Spurs usually had one of their guards ready and waiting to double team Memphis in paint, forcing their big men to kick the ball out to the perimeter.
For a team that ranked No. 30 out of 30 NBA teams in three-pointers attempted and made during the regular season, the sudden reliance on perimeter jumpers – reserve forward Quincy Pondexter was the only Grizzly to make a shot from beyond the arc – doomed Memphis’ chances.
We saw this once before in the playoffs – the Grizzlies’ Game 1 blowout loss against the LA Clippers. The Grizz weren’t ready to go then either, allowing 55% shooting while getting outrebounded by 24 in an ugly 22-point loss. Of course, Memphis bounced back strong, winning every remaining game in the series.
Vinny Del Negro is no Gregg Popovich. The Grizzlies also lost Game 1 at OKC in SU fashion, then won the next four games of that series as well. But Scott Brooks is no Popovich either. San Antonio’s game plan here in the postseason has been brilliant, and Coach Pop deserves as much credit as we can give him.
I’m not convinced that Memphis has the appropriate adjustments in their repertoire. San Antonio might not have another Game 1-type blowout in them, but its bench depth and game plan provide a clear edge in the series.
Miami/Indiana: The Pacers gave the Heat a legitimately tough test on Miami’s championship run last year; taking a 2-1 series lead in the conference semi-finals before dropping each of the last three games. Indiana also gave Miami trouble during the regular season this year, winning two of the three regular season meetings by double digit margins.
It is worth noting, however, that both of Indiana’s wins over the Heat here in 2013 came before the All Star break. It was later that the Heat turned it up a notch for the stretch run. Here in the postseason, this series has been priced like a non-competitive first round matchup.
At the LVH here in Vegas, the Heat are -750 at the opener to win the series, while bettors will get an attractive +550 if the Pacers can pull off the upset. There’s no question some of that price tag is based on reputation.
The defending champs have been a “hype” team all year with household name superstars, while the small market Pacers are completely anonymous when it comes to star power.
That being said, Miami has been to the Finals in each of the last two years, while Indiana hasn’t reached the Finals since the Lakers were three-peating more than a decade ago.
Yes, the Heat deserve to be prohibitive favorites, even if that -750 price tag looks a tad bit high. In theory, the Pacers match up fairly well with Miami. The Heat are not a dominant low post team while Indiana is big and bulky in the paint.
In the three regular season meetings, Indiana won the rebounding battle by 33 boards; at least +5 in every game. Miami’s Big Three had modest success, but their supporting cast did not. And I respect what Indiana head coach Frank Vogel is saying and doing to get his relatively inexperienced squad ready for the media crunch and postseason hype:
“This is not about getting back at Miami. If you’re in the final four, you’re competing for a championship. You’re competing for a championship. And they’re just the next team that’s in our way,” Vogel said.
Star power and championship experience go a long way when it comes to winning playoff series. Even though I expect Indiana to give Miami a battle – they’re not going to roll over – the “value” to support Indiana on the series price is only worth something if they can actually win or come close enough to give bettors a chance to hedge off at a positive expectation price.
Frankly, that’s not something I think the Pacers are capable of doing.
Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]