Tips For Handicapping the NBA Playoffs

With March Madness behind us, it’s time to focus on the NBA Playoffs that begin this weekend across the Eastern and Western Conferences. Here are the key stats you should be looking at throughout the postseason.

*DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY

You just saw how important defense was in the NCAA Tournament. Playing great defense always gives you a chance to win…a chance to rally from behind…a chance to win the final seconds of a close game.

Defensive efficiency is points allowed per possession rather than just a raw total of points allowed per game. This is important because some fast-paced teams play better defense than is publicly realized. That’s been an issue during the recent Golden State “dynasty.” The team was much better at getting stops than realized because they played some high scoring track meets. Once you adjusted for pace, Golden State had one of the best defenses in the league during their most dominant stretches.

If you want to dig deeper, it can’t hurt to look at two-point defense (guarding the rim) and turnover percentages (takeaways). Of course, defensive rebounding is important too. We’re about to get to that.

 

*REBOUND RATE

Rebounding is important on both sides of the floor. On offense, any rebound extends what was about to be a failed possession. On defense, any rebound is a virtual steal because it ends the opponent’s possession. It’s always been true that “defense and rebounding wins championships.” No matter how many scoring stars have been celebrated by the media, it’s defense that wins playoff style basketball (and Michael Jordan was a terrific defender himself, don’t forget).

We will point out though that some quality teams basically “punt” offensive rebounds until they’ve fallen behind. Their coaches figure it’s better to race down to defend against a fast break than it is to crash the boards. As a result, some teams will look worse at rebounding than they actually are. When you’re watching games through the spring, check to see which teams are crashing and which are racing back.

 

*THREE-POINT SHOOTING

Golden State showed the rest of the league that you can run away and hide if you play great defense and make a lot of treys. Everyone else has been playing catch up to one degree or another ever since the Warriors made that crystal clear. If you’re going to pick playoff winners, you need to know which offenses can consistently make a high volume of treys when needed.

Look at shooting percentage stats from long range during the regular season. And, look at per-game averages for “makes.” You should have this data handy for all 16 postseason teams before first tip this weekend.

 

*ROAD RECORDS STRAIGHT UP AND ATS

We've found, over the years, that a proven ability to win on the road during the regular season correlates very well to success in the playoffs. Yes, home court advantage is important. But, it’s very difficult to win all of your home games at this level. Who can win on the road? And, more important for bettors, who can cover point spreads on the road? You don’t want to have any money invested on teams that disappear when the going gets tough. You want to bet on teams that don’t even blink when the going gets tough. Road straight up and ATS records will help you make smart decisions, particularly deep in a series.

 

*COACHING

You may think that this isn’t much of an issue at the professional level, where head coaches (and their deep staffs) should know what they’re supposed to do at all times. Sorry! Steve Kerr had a huge edge over the field when Golden State was re-inventing basketball. Brad Stevens provides an edge in Boston, though his talent sometimes lets him down.

The playoffs are where “cutting edge” coaching strategies earn their clearance from “old school” approaches that no longer work. It’s also where having a smart plan to get open looks late in close games crushes “give the ball to your main guy and hope he can beat a double team.”

If you don’t already know the strengths and weaknesses of NBA coaches, get up to speed quickly by watching first round action.

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