I don’t really believe in momentum. NBA teams definitely can win multiple games, and it seems that wins can lead to more wins, but pointing at momentum as the cause for that is lazy. There are all sorts of factors that can lead to a winning streak – increased confidence, good health, an easy schedule, and luck among them. To put too much faith in momentum is to believe too strongly that what has happened in the past has a direct bearing on what will happen in the next game. That makes momentum a dangerous concept for NBA sports bettors.
While I don’t generally think momentum is a significant factor in handicapping there are situations in which it has to be considered. In the NBA playoffs there are at least four situations in which momentum – or at least what is perceived to be momentum by the betting public – needs to be considered by serious handicappers:
When a team is on a strong streak on the road – One of the simplest ways to measure how tough and talented a NBA team really is is to look at their performance on the road. This is an even bigger factor in the playoffs. Studies have shown that the biggest reason that home court advantage exists is the crowd. The officials are well aware of the crowd, and are not interested in making that crowd angry, so they subconsciously give the home team some advantages. In the playoffs the crowds are bigger and the fans are more enthusiastic and vocal. That means that home court advantage is going to be tougher to overcome in the playoffs than it might be in the middle of the regular season. A team that appears to have a lot of momentum on the road is one that is probably tough enough to not be bothered by the extra challenges the playoff offers when they are on their opponent’s hardwood. That will increase their chances of playoff success, and therefore makes them more interesting for sports bettors.
When a lower seeded team is making big steps forward – I am very interested when a lower seeded team starts to play particularly well down the stretch of the regular season. I’m not talking about a three or four game winning streak to end the season, or a team that has success because their schedule features teams that are not motivated to play well at the end of the season. What I’m more interested in is a basketball team that has played dramatically better in their last 10 or 15 games than they have in the games before – not based on their record, but on how they stack up statistically. If a team has been shooting better from the field, defending better on the perimeter and under the basket, or rebounding better recently then they did on the whole year then it’s quite possible that they have taken their game to a new level. Perhaps they are more comfortable with each other, or their coaches have found a better way to get through to them, or they are healthy. Whatever the reason, this type of momentum is very valuable for bettors because it can lead to a situation in which a team is better than their record, and therefore better than a lot of casual bettors will assume them to be. That could lead to nice value for the basketball bettor.
When a good team is struggling – More significant than a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs is the opposite – a total absence of momentum. Some strong contenders will perform at less than their potential down the stretch because they are looking forward to the playoffs and have little left to accomplish in the regular season. Sometimes, though, the struggles of a good team will go well beyond just trying to save themselves. If a team is losing games they should be able to win, performing well below expectations statistically, and bickering or exhibiting a bad attitude in the press, then it could be an important sign that the team isn’t as ready for the league playoffs as they should be, and may not be as strong in the playoffs as their record would suggest.
Betting public loves streaks – Momentum is important in the NBA playoffs most significantly because the betting public definitely believes in momentum. They will look at things simplistically – a NBA team with a lot of momentum at the end of the regular season will be expected to carry it into the playoffs, and vice versa. Smart, expert sports bettors know that it pays to be aware of what the betting public is likely to think and do in a particular situation because that will have an impact on how the lines are set, how they move, and where the value can be found.