There’s a reason the Golden State Warriors spent the entire season — the entire past three seasons, in fact — as a runaway favorite to win the NBA title. At full strength, this Warriors team, which opened this season as much as a -200 favorite to win the championship, is almost unbeatable in a seven-game series.
The key phrase there, however, is “at full strength.” Golden State has not been close to full strength since Kevin Durant injured his calf in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series against Houston.
And as a result of the Warriors’ injury woes and uncertainty, the sports betting for this NBA Finals series against the Toronto Raptors has been wildly unpredictable — and remains so entering tonight’s Game 4.
Looking back on Game 3
Wednesday’s Game 3 at Oracle Arena in Oakland featured a particularly noteworthy line movement that created middling opportunities for bettors.
For the Warriors, Durant was unlikely to play, but it was considered a possibility when the opening line came out. Klay Thompson, who hurt his hamstring during Game 2, was a maybe. Kevon Looney, an increasingly important piece of the puzzle, was out. Andre Iguodala, questionable to play earlier in the series, was looking fine.
The line opened at Golden State -6 at many sportsbooks. Anyone who watched the first two games of the series knew that the Raptors were a tough matchup for the Durant-less Warriors. If Thompson was sure to play and Durant was a legit possibility, with the Warriors having home-court advantage, the line was justifiable. But given the “ifs” required to get there, bettors pounced on Toronto and moved the line. By the day of the game, it was Golden State -4.5.
Even with that adjusted line, and even with the Warriors being the far more “public” team, at DraftKings Sportsbook in New Jersey, 53% of the spread bets and 57% of the spread money were on Toronto.
Then came the late news that Thompson was out, leaving Golden State with a starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Iguodala (the sixth man much of the season), DeMarcus Cousins (himself just recently back from a long injury hiatus and not conditioned to play heavy minutes), and bench player Shaun Livingston. The line moved to Golden State -3 at most books.
DraftKings’ Head of Sportsbook Johnny Avello, a top Las Vegas oddsmaker for decades, has partial regrets about the lines they posted for Game 3.
“The opening number was fine,” Avello told US Bets. “The Warriors probably should have swung to the underdog in Game 3 when it was announced that Klay Thompson wasn’t playing and they didn’t have KD or Looney.”
The problem for Avello and other bookmakers is that if you move what was once a line of Warriors by 6, and was still bet heavily at Warriors by 4.5, all the way to Toronto being favored, you open yourself up for folks who bet the Raptors early to have a huge middle. (The Raptors ultimately won by 14, so Toronto bettors at any number won, while those who tried to middle were slight losers.)
How hard does the injury uncertainty make a bookmaker’s job?
“It makes it extremely difficult,” Avello said, “because those [Warriors players] are so important and have so much influence on the game. But, we have to offer a line for the public to wager on, so you hang a number and pay attention.”
Game 4 and beyond
Avello said there haven’t been any particular surprises in the way the public has bet the NBA Finals so far, as the majority have followed the “zig-zag theory” (that the team that lost/failed to cover the last game will win/cover the next one) in conjunction with reading the injury tea leaves.
Looking at the remainder of the series overall, the Warriors are now in an unfamiliar position: Down 2-1, they are, for the first time in three years, not the favorites to win the title. As of Friday morning, Golden State was a +106 underdog at DK Sportsbook. (The Raptors’ price is -129.)
“The Warriors should still be close to a pick ’em,” Avello reasoned, “because it’s very possible they’ll be at or close to full strength for the remainder of the Finals.”
Well, closer than they were in Game 3, anyway. Thompson is active for Game 4. Durant is not. Looney, despite fractured cartilage in the sternum and ribs, reportedly — not the broken collarbone originally reported — is still being evaluated.
So for now, Golden State is a 4.5-point favorite in tonight’s game. Had Durant been active also, Avello says the line might have gone up to 6.5 or 7.
What if Toronto steals another road game, and heads back home with a 3-1 series lead? Avello says Golden State believers will probably be able to get “somewhere in the 11/2 area” on the Warriors to rally to win the series.
One of the most interesting ways to bet the series early on was by picking an MVP candidate, but after three games, the long shots have mostly been wiped off the board. If Golden State wins, Curry, who scored 47 points on Wednesday, is almost a slam dunk. (DK has him at -118.) If Toronto prevails, Kawhi Leonard has the award just about wrapped up. (He’s a -106 choice.)
Green (+2000), Pascal Siakam (+3000), and Thompson (+5000) are all lingering, but would need to do something historic to overtake their respective superstar teammates.
The real wild card is Durant, at +4000. Basically, it’s a parlay bet: Toronto takes a 3-1 lead; Durant returns for Game 5; Durant plays brilliantly despite being physically compromised and the Warriors rally to win three straight. Under that scenario, KD could conceivably get the MVP after playing less than half the series.
Photo by Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports