NBA playoffs: Actionable first-round trends

April 14, 2022 08:29 PM

With enhanced stakes and seven-game series, the NBA playoffs force bettors to account for different factors. 

For one, there’s a lot of ebb and flow in a seven-game series, so knowing how teams react to wins and losses is key. Second, winning games is all that matters in the postseason, so individual stats and perhaps even point spreads don’t tend to matter as much. Third, and this can’t be overstated, if players can play, they will. Unlike the regular season when injuries and rest days run rampant, you’ll typically get the best a team has to offer for every game.

For most NBA fans, this is the best time of the year. For NBA bettors, it can be as well, especially when armed with historical trends and systems. In this report, I’ll help uncover some of the most important data from recent NBA postseasons, in particular the first round. I’ll do the same for later rounds as the postseason progresses. Look for second-round trends in a couple of weeks.

The most distinctive trend in last year’s playoffs, and one that must be considered this year, is the decisive nature of playoff victories. In 85 postseason games in 2021, winners scored 116.6 PPG while losers scored 104.1. That winning margin of 12.5, along with an 80-4-1 ATS record of outright winners, were the most definitive marks of any year in my database, which goes back more than 25 years. By comparison, outright winners in the 2020 postseason were 69-10-5 ATS.

Let’s get to breaking down the first round. Of the 13 lower-seeded teams that advanced to the second round in the last nine postseasons, 10 were No. 5 seeds beating No. 4s and the other three were 6s over 3s. The last team seeded lower than 6 to advance was the No. 8 76ers in 2012 (defeated the No. 1 Bulls after Derrick Rose went down with a season-ending knee injury in Game 1). If the Nets survive the play-in round, they’ll be fighting an uphill battle. 

Let’s go to the numbers (using data from the last nine postseasons):

Series trends 

Accurately predicting an upset in a series will give you a leg up on a game-by-game basis, but finding big underdogs that are more competitive than expected and push series to the limit is just as important. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Finding favorites that make quick work of an opponent makes first-round betting a lot easier. 

— There were 17 first-round sweeps from 2013-21, with three coming by lower-seeded teams. In eight of those sweeps, the higher-seeded team had a worse ATS record over the last half of the regular season, the last 20 games and the last 10 games. In other words, ignore any late-season ATS trends that might have you considering a potential upset.

— In 13 of the last 14 series in which the lower-seeded team won (all 4-5 and 3-6 matchups), the teams were within four games of each other in the regular-season standings. In 13 of the last 22 series that were 3-6 or 4-5 matchups won by the higher seed, the higher seed won at least five more games in the regular season.

— In 30 series in which teams were separated by more than 10 games in the standings, the higher seed is 30-0 with 10 sweeps. The lower seed in those spots is averaging 1.13 victories per series, with only four lower seeds pushing the series to seven games.

— In 42 series in which teams were separated by 10 wins or fewer, the lower-seeded team is averaging 2.55 victories per series, with 14 series wins. Lower-seeded teams in those spots were only swept four times and defeated in five games six times.

— When the higher-seeded team won at least four more games ATS than its opponent in the regular-season, the higher-seeded team has won 16 of 18 series.

— Using records from the second half of the season has revealed quality underdogs. When the lower-seeded team had an equal or better record in the second half of the season, it won six of the last 13 series while going 42-37 SU in individual games.

Alternatively, when the higher seed was at least five games better than the lower seed in the second half of the season, the higher seed won all 27 series while going 108-31 SU in individual games. Furthermore, only one of the 27 lower-seeded teams pushed the series to seven games.

— Lower-seeded teams that won at least 48 games in the regular season have gone 7-16 in series and 62-74 (45.6%) in individual games. Those that won 47 games or fewer are 7-42 in series and 79-180 (30.5%) in individual games.

Game trends by line/total range

— Big favorites almost always win. First-round favorites of 8.5 points or more are 72-6 SU and 50-28 ATS (64.1%) since 2014.

— Road favorites of 4.5 points or more are 35-6 SU and 28-12-1 ATS (70%). 

— First-round home favorites of 4 points or fewer are just 29-28 SU and 22-34-1 ATS (39.3%). 

— Despite the rise in scoring over the last few years, it’s interesting to note that in the lowest-totaled playoff games (218 or lower) the Under is 34-20-3 (62.9%) over the last three postseasons. When the total is 218 or higher, the Over is 41-26-2 (61.2%).

Last-game trends

— Home teams coming off a win in the prior game of the series are 53-26 SU and 45-34 ATS (57%) since 2016. Those coming off a loss are 52-46 SU and 43-52-3 ATS (45.3%) in the same span. The latter is often the lower-seeded team, but this is still a good indication of how momentum plays in a series.

— Blowout losses carry over, dispelling the idea of teams bouncing back from bad first-round losses. Teams that lost the previous game by 10 points or more are 46-86 SU and 52-77-3 ATS (40.3%) since 2015. 

— Heartbreaking losses have a galvanizing effect. Teams that lost the previous game by 3 points or fewer have bounced back with a 31-8 SU and 28-9-2 ATS (75.7%) record since 2014. In the line range of + 5 to -5, these teams are on an amazing 20-1 SU and 17-2-2 ATS (89.5%) surge.

Trends by game number

— Game 1 home teams are 45-19 SU and 33-31 ATS (51.6%) over the last nine postseasons. However, favorites of 7.5 points or fewer in series openers are 17-15 SU and 15-17 ATS (46.9%). All games in 2020 were played on a neutral court.

— Game 1s are 13-3 (81.3%) to the Under in the last two postseasons played on home courts (2019 and 2021).

— Home teams that won Game 1 are 22-5 SU and 20-7 ATS (74.1%) in Game 2 since 2016.

— Game 2s with double-digit home favorites are on an 11-3 (78.6%) run to the Under.

— Game 3 home teams that split the first two games are 13-10 SU and 12-10-1 ATS (54.5%), while those that were either up 2-0 or down 2-0 are a combined 16-35 SU and 17-23-1 ATS (42.5%).

— Game 3 home favorites of 4 points or more are 11-0 SU and 10-1 ATS (90.9%), while home dogs of 4 points or more are 2-14 SU and 5-10-1 ATS (33.3%).

— Game 4 home teams in the + 3 to -3 line range are on a 15-6 SU and 15-5-1 ATS (75%) run.

— Teams down 0-3 are 8-20 SU and 11-16-1 ATS (40.7%) in Game 4.

— Game 5 home teams are 22-4 SU and 16-10 ATS (61.5%) since 2017.

— Game 6 road teams are 21-12 SU and 24-9 ATS (72.7%), with the Under going 21-12 and outright road winners going 21-0 ATS. Road teams looking to close out a series are 14-7 SU and ATS. 

— Game 7s are usually competitive, with favorites going 13-3 SU but just 6-9-1 ATS. 

Trends by seed

— No. 1 seeds as favorites of 2.5 points or fewer or as underdogs are 7-4 SU and ATS, with the Under going 9-2 in those games.

— 1s are 9-1 SU and 8-2 ATS in the last 10 games when trailing in a series.

— 1s are 16-2 SU and 14-4 ATS (77.8%) in the last 18 closeout chances, which is a big reason why they haven’t played a Game 7 since 2014.

— No. 2 seeds have been crazy good as bigger chalk, going 57-11 SU and 45-23 ATS (66.2%) when favored by 4.5 points or more.

— 2s are on a 29-5 SU and 23-11 ATS (67.6%) run in the first two games of a series.

— 2s are on a 12-2 SU and 11-3 ATS (78.6%) run after a loss.

— No. 3 seeds on the road after a loss are 9-3 SU and ATS.

— No. 4 seeds are 10-26 SU and 12-23-1 ATS (34.3%) in Games 3 and 4.

— 4s as favorites or 6 points or more are 16-6 SU and 11-11 ATS in the last 22 games. In all other spots over the last six postseasons, 4s are 29-52 SU and 30-49-2 ATS (38%).

— 4s are 20-28 SU and 15-33 ATS (31.3%) after a loss.

Trends in closeout games

— In Games 4, 5 and 6 of a closeout spot, favorites of 2 points or fewer or underdogs are 7-16 SU and 8-15 ATS.

— Teams getting a second or third closeout opportunity are 17-9 SU but 8-16-2 ATS (33.3%).

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