04/17/2002 11:00PM

Do's and don'ts of betting NBA playoffs


There are many differences between the regular season and the playoffs in the NBA. The key to handicapping the playoffs is to recognize the changes and determine which are more important.

Tim Trushel, of Trushel Sports Consulting (trushel.com), was one of the top handicappers late in the NBA season. He finished third in the $10,000 sportwireonline.com, which was run in conjunction with his local radio show, with a record of 32-18 and +12.2 units (based on +1 unit per win and -1.1 units for each loss). But even a hot handicapper like Trushel realizes he can't handicap the same way once the playoffs begin.

"The main difference is that there are no more situation handicapping spots, like one team playing four games in five nights versus a well-rested team," Trushel said. "The advantages come from individual player matchups, and you have to find the teams that have that edge."

Many bettors put a lot of stock in home-court advantage during the playoffs, but Trushel said that can be a costly knee-jerk reaction simply to bet home favorites.

"The intangibles that make home court strong during the regular season - such as teams being on an extended road trip and playing a lot of games in a short period of time - do not exist in the playoffs," he said.

"Besides, the oddsmakers already adjust for home court, and a lot of times they overcompensate."

For that reason, it's a good idea to look at underdogs first, especially if the public jumps on the bandwagon with the top teams and bets the line upward. Trushel agrees, but adds that it can pay to bet on an outright upset.

"Rarely if ever do points come into the mix in the playoffs," he said. "The team that covers usually wins, so you can get a much better price if you back your team to win straight-up."

Another common theory is the "revenge theory" or, as it's become known in playoff scenarios, the "zig-zag theory." That is a system in which you bet on a team coming off a loss, assuming it will play better to get back in the series.

"Over the last two decades, the zig-zag theory worked very well, but I don't know if it's a valid argument anymore," Trushel said. "Oddsmakers have really adjusted and the lines reflect that. Last year, the Lakers tore through 11 straight wins and covered 10 of those, so people who bet that [angle] blindly had a lot of trouble.

Trushel said he prefers to refine the revenge theory.

"I'll be more likely to play a team that's coming off a loss if there's a good reason for the loss," he said. "For instance, if a team had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night, such as 5 percent below its season-long field-goal percentage, then you can reasonably expect them to do better."

It used to be that NBA playoff games were notoriously low-scoring, and bettors loved to pound the under, even though oddsmakers usually lowered totals anywhere from four to eight points. But that's another trend that might get reversed. With the league legalizing zone defenses this year, scoring is up. Four teams (the Mavericks, Kings, Lakers, and Magic) averaged more than 100 points a game this year, compared to only one team averaging 100 points last year. If oddsmakers lower their totals, the over could be the way to bet.

"More teams are playing an uptempo style, and I don't think you'll see them change," Trushel said.

"I'm not sure the half-court set will be as important as it's been in the past."

Everyone agrees that the West is the best, especially among the top teams, and the East is pretty much up for grabs with a bunch of mediocre teams. Olympic, an offshore book, was the first to post series prices Thursday morning, and its odds reflected that. The Kings opened as a -1400 favorite over the Jazz. The Nets, the No. 1 seed in the East was only a -400 favorite to survive its first-round matchup with the Pacers. The other favorites in the West are also prohibitive favorites, while the East matchups are relatively competitive.

Trushel says he fully expects the top four seeds in the West - Kings, Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks - to advance, but he concedes that the best-of-five format, as opposed to best-of-seven in later rounds, makes it a little dicey.

"In theory, the shorter the sample the better the chance for the weaker team," he said. "If you play one game, the underdog has a decent chance to win. If you play 10 or 100 games, the favorite will surely come out ahead. The best-of-five is to the advantage of the dogs."

* Joe Gavazzi of Private Players of Pittsburgh won the Vegas Sportswire 5-0 Hoops Invitational with a record of 32-17-1 and a profit of 13.3 units. Gavazzi won his last three games to overtake Trushel and Ted Svransky of whocovers.com (30-16-4, +12.4 units). Trushel is launching another contest for the NBA playoffs, and free selections will be available on sportswireonline.com starting Saturday.