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Facing the best, Lakers play their best

Despite skepticism from betting markets, the Lakers played like champions last week against the Bucks and the Clippers. Final scores in those comfortable victories were almost identical. 

— Friday, the Lakers (-1.5) beat the Bucks 113-103. Home-court advantage is generally worth three points in the NBA. That betting line means the most important influences on the line believed the Bucks were about 1.5 points better than the Lakers on a neutral court. 

— Sunday, the Lakers (+ 2.5) beat the Clippers 112-103 at their shared Staples Center. Markets thought the Clippers would be about a bucket better. 

LeBron James and company beat expectations by 8.5 and 11.5 points. Amazing that Las Vegas sportsbooks can underrate a pro team playing so close geographically. You’ve likely heard the handicapping saw that high-profile teams are usually overrated because of media hype. The Lakers have covered four in a row and nine of their last 11 and are now 35-26-1 against the spread this season. Backers are up 6.4 betting units after accounting for the standard 10% vigorish on losses. 

Sunday’s easy win was particularly impressive because the Clippers had been playing like champions themselves in recent action — hence the favorite role. The Clips had covered by 22 vs. Denver, 10 at Oklahoma City and 14 vs. Houston, all of whom will be in the Western Conference playoffs. 

An important note is getting overlooked in handicapping and pundit circles. The Lakers play elite defense. Both the Bucks and Clippers scored just 103 points, doing so on 112 and 101 possessions, respectively. The Lakers rank third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, which is points adjusted for pace. (The Clippers are an impressive fifth, which is why they’re also on the short list of serious championship hopefuls.)

This week the Lakers will host Brooklyn on Tuesday before hosting nationally televised battles vs. Houston (10:30 p.m. Thursday, TNT) and Denver (9 p.m. Sunday, ESPN).

The Clippers, still in the black for bettors at 34-29 against the spread, look to bounce back Tuesday at Golden State (10:30 p.m., TNT), Friday vs. Brooklyn and Saturday vs. Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. 

College basketball notes

— USC (-2.5) beat UCLA but didn’t cover Saturday in an ugly 54-52 scrap to earn a sweep of the season series. 

USC finished the regular season 22-9 straight up, 19-12 against the spread (including 12-4 its last 16 ATS). UCLA finished 19-12 straight up, 17-13-1 vs. the number (including 9-3-1 its last 13 ATS). 

The Bruins earned a superior seed in the Pac-12 tournament because more of their covers were outright upsets. UCLA is the No. 2 seed and will begin play Thursday against the winner of No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 10 California. USC is the No. 4 seed and will also begin Thursday against the winner of No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 12 Washington. 

Because the tourney begins Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, here’s an early look at our estimated market Power Ratings entering the event. These are based on a composite of recent point spreads (not seeds) and can be used to project likely spread ranges in any possible matchup: 

Oregon 84, Arizona 84, Colorado 82, UCLA 80, USC 79, Stanford 79, Arizona State 79, Oregon State 78, Washington 76, Utah 76, Washington State 72, California 72.

It will be interesting to see if markets adjust to recent misreads. You already know UCLA and USC have been underpriced for weeks. Colorado is 1-8 ATS in its last nine. Arizona State is 0-4-1 ATS in its last five. UCLA could play either Colorado or ASU if it reaches the semifinals. 


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