In early June, the NBA completed the first half of the NBA Finals, with the Golden State Warriors holding a 3–1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA Finals are generally considered as the best sporting event of the year, and as a result, the betting public and sportsbooks were rife with bets on the game. The odds on Golden State were 7.5 on the underdogs, while they were 4.5 on the favorites. On the opening night of the NBA Finals, there were 17,000 bets between 8 and 9 p.m. ET, with +14.5 hitting the board, meaning the bettor picked Golden State to win the game +14.5.
Although many would argue that the NBA is fixed, the odds clearly suggested that the general public still had faith in the reigning champions. That faith was rewarded when Klay Thompson sank two free throws with 43.8 seconds left in the game to lift the Warriors to a 115–114 win, giving them a 4–1 lead in the series.
Analyzing NBA Finals +14.5 is important for several reasons. First, it’s the first time this year that we have seen a number hit the board in the final minute(s) of an NBA game. Second, this game was pivotal. It essentially decided the fate of the defending champion. And finally, analyzing this number can help the vast majority of users who struggle with basic probability determine whether or not to bank on the favorite or the underdog in a given situation.
How Did This Number Get There?
We have already established that the public was betting on Golden State at +14.5, and it wasn’t just a fluke. The Cavs were favored at 4.5, and if you look closely at the numbers, you’ll notice that they were the ones who were getting all the action. Let’s look at some of the events that led to this pivotal game and the subsequent +14.5 hit:
Underdog vs. Favorite +14.5 In Exacto Matches In The 2019 NBA Finals
Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers made it all the way to the NBA Finals, but they were no match for the Golden State Warriors. The two teams split the first four games of the series, with the series going to a fifth game, which the Warriors won 93–88. The underdogs were favored in that game, with the early line having Cleveland at +7.5 and Golden State at +14.5. As in the previous year, there were sharp numbers waiting to be analyzed, and the board eventually settled on Golden State to win, as expected. Inexact matches on the over/under are common in NBA games because either team can win. In the first quarter of the 2019 NBA Finals, there were 12.5 bets on underdogs to beat the spread and 8.5 bets on favorites. But by the end of the game, there were 17,000 bets in total, and +14.5 had taken over. Although the underdogs lost that game, they found a way to win the series in Game 7.
This year, the Cavaliers started strong, winning games 1 and 2 in the finals. But then the tide turned. The Warriors beat the Cavs in Game 3, which was followed by back-to-back losses in Games 4 and 5. It was clear that the tables had turned; the underdog was now favored to win. For the first four games of the 2019 NBA Finals, there were 13,000 bets on underdogs to win, compared to 7,500 bets on favorites. With three wins and a pair of losses for the underdogs, it looked like they were finally getting their due match. But the Cavaliers are no ordinary team; they fought their way back from a 3–1 deficit against the Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals, and they’re not about to give up this time around. In Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, the underdogs were up by 3 points with 19 seconds left. But the Cavaliers fought back, tying the score with 7.6 seconds remaining. The game went to overtime, and with the stakes high, everyone in the building anxiously awaited the winner. While we were waiting, the line moved to 14.5, meaning the bettor now had to choose between the underdogs and the favorites. Fortunately for the Cavs, they won the lottery, sinking two free throws with 14.5 seconds left to win the game and the series. The final totals were 16,000 bets on Cleveland and 7,500 bets on Golden State.
This series had the potential to be very uneven. The underdogs won the first two games in Cleveland, which would have been very surprising if the Warriors hadn’t gotten a break or two. Even in the fifth game, which Golden State won in dominant fashion, the underdogs were still favored to win by 5 points. The Cavaliers were simply outclassed by the defending champions. But in the final three games, the tables turned. The Cavs showed resilience and determination, coming back from a pair of loses to win the series and, in the process, earn the attention of the betting public. It was clear that the public wanted a comeback story more so than a one-sided betting favorite. And that’s exactly what they got. The comeback story of 2019 will be remembered for a very long time.
Looking back at the 2017 NBA Playoffs, we can see some very similar conditions. The Philadelphia 76ers were a good example of an underdog who managed to surprise the experts. They were down 3–1 in the series, and many people wrote them off. But then they won three out of their next four games, heading into Game 7, which they won 96–95, rallying back from an 8 point deficit in the final minutes. The 76ers were 7–1 in Game 7s and 15–4 in all games in the playoffs, which helped them clinch the number one seed.
Over/Under As A Percentage Of Total Bets In NBA Playoff Games
We can also look at how over/under activity has shifted in NBA Playoff games. In 2017, underdogs won 12 of the first 24 games of the playoffs, and the over was only slightly more active, 13–11. But then the underdogs went on a 4–2 losing streak, and the over took the lead, 17–13. Although the underdogs won 6 of the last 8 games, the over was ultimately the winner, 22–20. In the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the trends flipped. The underdogs won the first two games of the series, and then the Over took the lead, winning the next four games. The over won the series 45% to 39%, while the underdogs took the other 55%. If you compare this to all playoff games, you’ll notice that the over was a lot more active in the 2019 playoffs than in previous years. Why? Perhaps the NBA decided to up the intensity level this year, as most of the games were very competitive. And that’s exactly what we saw. Even games 3 and 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals were extremely close. It looks like the betting public has gotten over their disappointment from the previous year, as they now fully support the underdogs in the Finals.
What Does This Mean For Sports Betting?
The trends observed in the NBA in 2019 point to some very significant shifts in betting behavior. First, the public is no longer afraid to bet on the underdog. In fact, in some situations, they may be more inclined to do so. For example, if you look at last night’s Game 7 of the 2019 NBA Finals, you’ll notice that there was a lot more action on the over/under. But the most interesting development is how the over/under has shifted from almost exclusively being a spread bet to including more wagers on totals. This is interesting because, as we’ve established, NBA playoffs are very competitive. If you look at the percentages, you’ll see that over 75% of last night’s bets were on the totals. This suggests that the betting public now views the entire game, not just the spread, as important. So if you’re a betting enthusiast, you may want to consider wagering on the entire game, not just the spread.
These numbers should not be taken as an indication that the NBA is fixed. Far from it. The numbers simply reflect the public’s confidence in the underdogs and their disappointment with the favorites. But this is also a good opportunity for more informed bettors to make some money. If you’re the type of person who is aware of and takes advantage of these statistical trends, you may be able to profit from them. For example, if you’re watching the NBA Finals last night and notice that there’s a lot of betting on the over/under, you may want to consider wagering on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even if you don’t think they have a chance in hell of winning, you may still want to bet on them because the betting public seems to agree. Plus, down 15–4 in the series, the odds are now in your favor, as the underdogs are 4.5–1 to win. So if you’re looking for a sure thing, you may want to consider betting on the Cavaliers.