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NBA Totals in the Playoffs

The NBA playoffs have a reputation for being a time when teams pick up the defensive intensity and play hard-nosed basketball. Few shots go uncontested, as it’s better to send somebody to the free throw line with a hard foul than it is to let them have an easy breakaway.
If the premise holds true, we would expect to see most of the totals going under, so we’ll take a look at history and see if there’s any merit to that trend.

The first thing we’ll do is look at regular season vs. post-season numbers. If we go all the back 20 years, we’ll find that in regular season games overs are 11162-11102-277 against the spread, meaning that 50.1% of the games went over. Teams averaged 98.4 points per game compared to just 95.0 points per game in the playoffs. As a result totals were 720-797-27 in the playoffs, which is 47.5%.
Moving to the past 15 years, we see that regular season games were 8559-8463-248, making the overs come through 50.3% of the time, while teams averaged 97.0 points per game. Once the post-season rolled around, totals were 542-613-27 (46.9%) and scoring went down to 94.1 points per game.

Going back to the past 10 years, we’d see that regular season games were 5988-6028-159, seeing them drop below 50% for the first time, as teams averaged 97.7 points per game. The post-season numbers were 386-422-19 (47.8%) with scoring down to 95.1 points per game.

Things get a bit more interesting when we look at the past five seasons, as regular season games were 3010-3064-74 (49.6%), as teams scored 99.7 points per game. In the post-season, games were 184-218-11, which is just 45.8%, as scoring dipped to 95.5 points, a drop of 4.2 points per game from the regular season.

Finally, if we look at the past three regular seasons, we’d see scoring at 100 points per game, which is a bit surprising, as there seem to be more defensive-minded teams than ever, and totals were 1787-1858-43, which is 49%, the lowest of any figure. In the playoffs, scoring dropped to 96.1 points and totals were 113-127-8, or 47.1%, which is a bit of an increase from the five-year glance.

Changing Totals

While scoring goes down slightly and more games do go under the total than not in the playoffs, the oddsmaker does factor that into the playoff lines a bit, but the public has a big influence on the numbers, as well.
We’ll use the New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers from the 2010-11 season as an example. The two teams met four times during the regular season and three times the over/under was 188.5 and the other time the number was 190.5.

When the teams met in the playoffs, the over/under for the first game was just 182.5 and the game easily went over the total with a final score of 109-100. The total for the next game was up to 187, but this time the game easily went under the total with a final score of 87-78.

This time there was a knee-jerk reaction the other way, as the total plumeted to 180 for Game 3 and it went over with a final score of 100-86. The total was set at 183.5 for the fourth game and remained close to that for the remainder of the series.

Don’t be afraid to go against the grain when you see a big move in the total from one game to the next. You would have been 10-7, or 58.8%, going against moves of four or more points over the past two seasons.

As the playoffs get closer, we’ll have our usual look at various spread and total groupings.

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