Isolating Indicator Stats in NBA Playoffs

As promised, I'm back at the end of the week to talk about the NBA Playoffs. Our normal schedule was disrupted this past Monday by the most important news in the sports betting industry for decades! It will be months before all that works itself out. Hopefully many of you will be betting legally in your home state by the time football season rolls around. I've been doing that since before many of you were even born right here in Las Vegas.

Today, our coursework is going to focus on "indicator" stats. To me, that means the numbers in the key categories that best represent difference-makers in a series. It would be easy if the indicator stats were always the same. But, basketball is complex, and the way teams match up is also very complex. It could be that rebounding is the most important stat in one series, but it barely matters at all in the next one. For some teams, earning trips to the free throw line is what it takes to put them over the top. Others rely on three-pointers.

I'm going to give you my thoughts on the Boston/Cleveland series so far, then assign you some homework for the Houston/Golden State series.

To me, the most important indicator stats in Boston/Cleveland involve the combination of Cleveland's three-point shooting and Cleveland's turnover counts. When the Cavaliers are clicking, it's because LeBron James is attacking the basket and kicking the ball out to three-point shooters. If you can't disrupt that, the Cavs will run you right out of the gym.

Let's look at those stats vs. Toronto…

Game One: 14 of 35 on treys, only 5 turnovers
Game Two: 11 of 26 on treys, only 3 turnovers
Game Three: 9 of 25 on treys, 10 turnovers
Game four: 12 of 26 on treys, 10 turnovers

Cleveland set the tone for the sweep by playing almost mistake-free basketball in the first two games at Toronto. The Cavs did get sloppier after that, but had more margin for error because Toronto gave up hope so easily.

In treys, you can see that Cleveland always reached at least nine makes, and consistently nailed high impact baskets. Even a generic mark like 9 of 25 grades out right at 36%, which is the equivalent of 54% on two-pointers.

Cleveland's worst combination above (Game Three) resulted in a two-point win. Otherwise, LeBron James and company were soaring past market expectations.

Now, the numbers in the first two games at Boston…

Game One: 4 of 26 on treys, 9 turnovers
Game Two: 10 of 31 on treys, 15 turnovers

Awful shooting from long range in the opener. Note that Boston has the best three-point shooting defense in the NBA. It's always a point of emphasis for a Brad Stevens-coached team. Not that any team can make its opponents shoot THAT badly on command. But, you can see how mortal Cleveland became when the bombs weren't falling.

Shooting improved in the second outing for Cleveland, but that came at the expense of a lot more turnovers. The Cavs play very slow basketball, to better exploit LeBron's strengths in the half court. Losing the ball 15 times in a slow game is horrible. No way to win that way.

So, THOSE are the key indicator stats to me. Follow those areas closely when you watch the rest of the series and read the box scores. Cleveland must get up to at least 36% on treys to compete, and possibly 40% to win. And, the Cavs must aim for 10 turnovers or less. If you can handicap what's going to happen in those categories in advance, you will likely to well against the spread for the rest of the series.

I've done one conference championship matchup for you. Your homework this weekend is to do the other one. Study the box scores from the first two games of Golden State/Houston, and how those teams performed in the standard stats in their prior rounds. Game Three isn't until Sunday night…so you have some time to get this done. And, we already know there will be at least FIVE games in the West, which means you have time to take advantage of what you learn.

I would focus on these areas:
Three-Point Attempts
Three-Point Shooting Percentage
Free Throw Attempts Earned
Turnovers Committed
Two-Point Shooting Percentage

Look at OFFENSE and DEFENSE for all of those. Don't only do half the work by looking at offenses. You want to know which defenses can force turnovers, deny open looks on treys, and end opposing possessions by grabbing rebounds. Money usually goes to bettors who recognize which teams can prevent opponents from doing what they want.

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Thanks for your attendance. We'll get caught up in baseball in our next class get-together on Monday. The Dean of Sports Handicapping hopes you did your homework awhile back on finding what was wrong with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fading them has been a virtual ATM machine in recent days.


I have spent a lifetime learning the racing game from the inside out, protecting the common horseplayer and making my own scores by using the "bad" guys moves to my advantage. Over more than four decades, I have been publicity director for both Churchill Downs and Pimlico for the Derby and Preakness, and have authored several books on thoroughbred handicapping.

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