NBA playoffs betting strategies

Written by Sean Callander

When the 2017-18 NBA season kicked-off, the vast majority of experts were tipping another fairly predictable two-horse race between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The reigning champs were rated as low as $1.60 to go backto- back while the Cavs were the only other team in single figures at $3.50. By the eve of the Finals, things had taken a turn for the surreal.

The Warriors entered the postseason a distant second to the Houston Rockets in the West. Meanwhile the Cavs barely limped into the top four in the East with Toronto, Boston and the upstart Philadelphia 76ers posting superior regular season marks. The bookies countered by easing GSW to $2.20 while LeBron James and the Cavaliers had drifted to $7.50. The Rockets were rated second favorites to go all the way ($3) while the Raptors were into $11, having been priced as high as $81 earlier in the campaign.

This scenario neatly fits one of a trio of strategies that are worth following throughout the playoffs. During the regular season, punters typically bet favorites against the spread (ATS) approximately 75 percent of the time. Come playoff time, that number drops to 57 percent. We get it – it’s the postseason so both teams must be of a decent quality which means a value play on the underdog. The stats suggest otherwise.

For example, take the third seed in the West where there’s a 17-win gap between Houston, Golden State and the rest of the field. That’s still a significant gulf in class. It also doesn’t make much sense as ATS favorites cover the line at a marginally better rate (improving to 50 percent from 49) in the playoffs compared to the regular season. As the number of bets increase on the ATS favorites, books adjust, so watch for teams that have attracted less than 40 percent of bets in this situation.

This contrarian approach leads to a strategy with which even the most casual NBA punter will be familiar. The concept of the zig-zag system is quite simple – bet the team that lost its previous game. The logic is that, across a seven-game playoff series, teams will lift their performance to make up the deficit. This is generally not a profitable play.

NBA playoff teams coming off a straight-up loss cover at a rate of 52 percent while teams that failed to cover the line in their previous post-season start go 51.8 percent next time out. But extrapolate that number to favorites of four or more points in their previous outing and the record improves to a profitable 58.7 percent (it’s even higher if that team was a road favorite). These results are hardly surprising given the public’s tendency to overreact to the most recent game.

The final element in this trio of playoff strategies relates to a combination of profitable post-season situations – significant favorites on which less than 40 percent of bets have been placed, and large underdogs. Teams favored by at least 4.5-points that have received less than 40 percent of the betting action have gone 68.8 percent ATS over a time-span of more than a decade.

Note that this angle is quite rare, appearing in just five percent of playoff scenarios (400 examples in a sample of almost 9,000 games). So when you see it, pound it!


As with all forms of sports betting, ensure you have appropriate bankroll strategies in place, always chase the best possible price and understand the concept of value when making NBA wagers.