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NBA Playoff First-Round Betting Trends: Be Wary of the Warriors Against the Spread

Draymond Green goes to the hoop
Draymond Green and the Warriors are favored to win a third-straight NBA Championship. Photo by Keith Allison (Wikimedia Commons) [CC License].
  • The 2019 NBA Playoffs get underway on April 13th
  • We’ve crunched data from the past five seasons to find the most prevalent first-round playoff trends
  • Don’t be surprised if a no. 5 seed topples a no. 4 seed once again

The NBA’s “second-season” has arrived. It took six months and 1,230 games to get here, but we finally know precisely which teams will be butting heads in the first-round of the 2019 Playoffs.

Broadcasters will try to convince you that anything can happen now that the postseason is here, but that’s isn’t entirely true. We’ve crunched the numbers from every single playoff matchup from the past five years and have uncovered distinct trends and patterns that occur with shocking regularity.

We’ve also examined the over/under and ATS trends for all 16 playoff teams and have included the information below so you make the most informed wagers possible.

NBA First Round Playoff Trends for Eventual Champions

Year Champion Seed 1st Round Opponent Series Record
2014 San Antonio Spurs 1 Dallas Mavericks 4-3
2015 Golden State Warriors 1 New Orleans Pelicans 4-0
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers 1 Detroit Pistons 4-0
2017 Golden State Warriors 1 Portland Trail Blazers 4-0
2018 Golden State Warriors 2 San Antonio Spurs 4-1

In the past five years only one eventual champion has been pushed to the limit in their first round series. That dubious distinction belongs to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, who needed all seven games to finish off Dirk Nowitzki and the pesky Dallas Mavericks. In all fairness, the Mavs weren’t your typical seventh seed, as the team won 49 games during the regular season and finished third in the NBA in scoring at 105.2 points per game.

San Antonio Spurs NBA Playoff Trends

The 1994 Denver Nuggets and the 1999 New York Knicks are the only no. 8 seeds to ever defeat a no. 1 seed. However, both teams pulled off the feat when the first round was still a best-of-five format. History has taught us that the better team usually wins when a series is stretched to seven games.

Denver Nuggets Playoff Trends

Average First Round Series Length by Matchup Over the Last 5 Years

Matchup Average Series Length in Games Series Won by the Favored Seed
1 vs 8 5.4 10/10
2 vs 7 5.3 10/10
3 vs 6 5.9 8/10
4 vs 5 5.8 3/10

No. 1 seeds are expected to win, but they’ve absolutely dominated their first round series over the past five years, winning all 10 matchups in the Eastern and Western Conferences. No. 2 seeds have been similarly unbeatable, going 10-for-10 during that span.

Golden State Warriors NBA Playoff Trends

The trickiest matchup to handicap has been the 4 vs 5 grouping, as the no. 4 seed has won just 30% of the time over the past five years. The difference between no. 4 and no. 5 seeds is often quite nominal, and some teams even try to tank games at the end of the season to end up with a more favorable matchup during the opening round.

2018 Eastern Conference First Round Results

Seed Team SU ATS O/U Series Result
1 Toronto Raptors 59-23 48-43-1 46-44-2 TOR in 6
2 Boston Celtics 55-27 62-37-2 52-46-3 BOS in 7
3 Philadelphia 76ers 52-30 53-37-2 45-46-1 PHI in 5
4 Cleveland Cavaliers 50-32 40-63-1 48-54-2 CLE in 7
5 Indiana Pacers 48-34 53-36-0 33-54-2 CLE in 7
6 Miami Heat 44-38 41-40-6 38-47-2 PHI in 5
7 Milwaukee Bucks 44-38 35-49-5 52-37-0 BOS in 7
8 Washington Wizards 43-39 39-48-1 39-47-2 TOR in 6

First round series are supposed to be a walk in the park for no. 1 and 2 seeds, but that wasn’t the case in 2018 as the Raptors were pushed to six games by the Wizards, and the undermanned Celtics escaped by the skin of their teeth in Game 7 against the Bucks. LeBron James and the Cavaliers also needed a full seven games to squeak by the upstart Pacers in their surprisingly close matchup.

Could we see another seven game series this year? It seems possible as a number of teams are dealing with injuries. The Celtics will have to soldier on without Marcus Smart until at least May 10th, and the banged-up Bucks have been without Malcolm Brogdon, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Tony Snell.

2018 Western Conference First Round Results

Seed Team SU ATS O/U Series Result
1 Houston Rockets 65-17 50-48-1 39-58-2 HOU in 5
2 Golden State Warriors 58-24 45-57-1 46-56-1 GSW in 5
3 Portland Trail Blazers 49-33 45-36-5 37-49-0 NOP in 4
4 Oklahoma City Thunder 48-34 37-50-1 39-49-0 UTA in 6
5 Utah Jazz 48-34 47-46-0 43-49-1 UTA in 6
6 New Orleans Pelicans 48-34 52-38-1 51-39-1 NOP in 4
7 San Antonio Spurs 47-35 43-41-3 39-47-1 GSW in 5
8 Minnesota Timberwolves 47-35 39-45-3 48-38-1 HOU in 5

The first round of the Western Conference playoffs went according to script with one notable exception. The Pelicans stunned observers by sweeping the heavily favored Trail Blazers. New Orleans averaged an eye-popping 114.5 points per game on 52% shooting from the floor and 40% shooting from beyond the arc in the four game-series.

The remaining three series were over in five-to-six games, with the favored team winning on each occasion.

Now that we have our history down it’s time to move onto the present with some surprising trends from this year’s playoff participants.

Golden State Has Been Awful Against the Spread in 2018-19

The Warriors covered the spread just 43.2% of the time in 2018-19. Not only was that the second worst mark in the league behind only the Knicks, but it also represents a huge 10.4% swing from 2015-16 when Golden State set an NBA record with 73 regular season wins.

Warriors ATS Record Over Past 5 Years

Year ATS Record Cover Percentage Average Margin of Victory
2014-15 58-44-1 56.9% 9.6
2015-16 59-45-2 56.7% 9.3
2016-17 52-45-2 53.6% 12.0
2017-18 45-57-1 44.1% 6.6
2018-19 35-46-1 43.2% 6.5

Perhaps the most disconcerting trend in the table above is Golden State’s declining average margin of victory. The Warriors hit a new five-year low this season, and were thrashed by 20 points or more on eight occasions. The Warriors are still heavily favored to win the 2019 NBA Championship with average odds of -220, but they seem far more vulnerable than in years past.

Conversely, Milwaukee consistently beat the spread all season. The Bucks were an NBA best 47-34-1 ATS and covered 60.3% of the time.

Denver Has Been a Risky Over Bet in 2018-19

Bet on Denver to go over at your own peril. The Nuggets surpassed the projected point total just 42% of the time during the regular season. That was the second worst mark in the league behind only the Lakers, who failed to crack the 40% threshold altogether.

Avoid Betting on the Raptors as a Favorite Against the Spread

No Eastern Conference playoff team was worse against the spread as a favorite this season than the Raptors, who went 28-38-1 and covered just 42.4% of the time. Toronto also covered less than 50% of the time after a win (46.4%), after a loss (45.8%), and as the home favorite (43.9%).

Toronto is a far better straight-up bet against Orlando. The Raptors split their four-game regular season series with the Magic, but were without leading scorer Kawhi Leonard during one of those losses. Count on them making short work of Orlando once their series gets underway on April 13th.

 

NBA Playoff Bracket

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