Upsets Percolating Inside The NBA Playoff Bubble: Trend Or Not?

With the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks facing elimination in the NBA Eastern Conference Semis, should other pre-playoff title favorites worry?
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It was nothing but a hypothetical — a gambler’s musings on how the remainder of the NBA regular season and playoffs might unfold in the league’s unprecedented Orlando bubble, delivered two days before play resumed.

Now, it sounds like prophecy.

“If you can actually trust your two eyes and say, you know what? This [Milwaukee] Bucks team — I know they were 53-12 or whatever it was — but now watching them play, they just seem like they’re off,” said NBC Sports Philadelphia sports betting expert Brad Feinberg in a July 28 interview with US Bets. “They seem like they’re a little in slow motion and the [oddsmakers], because the Bucks were big favorites, they keep making the Bucks a huge favorite even though they’re not looking good, I think that could be a massive advantage for the player.”

Cashing in on Milwaukee’s swoon

Back in July, Feinberg didn’t mean to single out the Bucks. He could have named the Lakers or Clippers, but Milwaukee happened to come first to mind as an example of one of the pre-bubble favorites, and how bettors could gain an edge by adjusting their expectations for a team that appeared to have lost its mojo before the sportsbooks.

Unfortunately for Bucks backers, however, Feinberg’s make-believe scenario turned out to look an awful lot like real life. Milwaukee looked flat while going 3-5 in the pre-playoff seeding games, dropped a surprising Game 1 to the Orlando Magic in the first round, never appeared to fully recover despite sweeping the rest of the series, then dropped into an all-but-insurmountable 0-3 hole versus the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They rallied to beat Miami in Sunday’s Game 4, but that silver lining arrived with plenty of tarnish, as Giannis Antetokounmpo had to leave the game with a sprained ankle and left the arena in a protective boot that suggests the Bucks’ reigning league MVP either won’t be able to play in Tuesday’s Game 5 or that he’ll play but the injury will limit his effectiveness.

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So, did Feinberg follow his pre-bubble advice and bet against the Bucks in Round 2? You bet your rear.

Feinberg made the Heat’s series line of +360 before Game 1 his “Play of the Year” in his Covers.com picks column. (He revealed to US Bets that he shopped around to find even friendlier +450 odds outside of the line provided at the website.) “I also bet the Heat in games one, two, and three,” Feinberg said. “I may hedge and bet a small amount on Bucks to win series at 7/1 in case a debacle occurs, but I really thought the Heat would win the series. The Bucks looked bad throughout the bubble.”

In the past week, Milwaukee, considered a pre-bubble title favorite alongside the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, has seen its championship odds move from +250 or +300 to +6000 at major online sportsbooks like DraftKings, FanDuel, PointsBet, and others. The Bucks went from -400 favorites to beat Miami before Game 1 to +600 series underdogs heading into tonight’s Game 5. And bettors like Feinberg have scored at each step along Milwaukee’s path to the brink of elimination.

“Miami is a tough-as-nails team going against a Bucks team that is nowhere near the giant it was pre-COVID,” Feinberg wrote in his column before the second round. “Anyone who has watched the Bucks play can see this team is not at the top of the NBA, where it had been for the entire season. Five months off can change a lot.”

Other potential conference finals upsets?

Is there any lesson from the Milwaukee-Miami series that gamblers can use to bet underdogs throughout the rest of the NBA postseason? Does the Bucks’ looming defeat mean that favorites’ traditional dominance over seven-game NBA playoff series could be shakier in the bubble than in normal times? Or did Milwaukee just run up against a nightmare matchup in Miami — a team full of shooters like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, who specialize in draining precisely the kind of above-the-break three-pointers Milwaukee’s league-best defense was built to concede?

Given the completely novel conditions of the 2020 NBA playoffs, there has been a rush to attribute every outcome to the bubble, in one way or another. After favorites reigned in the first round, The Athletic‘s Ethan Sherwood Strauss concluded that “in this sterile, space-station environment, the overdog eats.” Before long, Milwaukee was down 0-3, the Lakers dropped Game 1 to the Houston Rockets, and the Clippers aren’t running roughshod over the Denver Nuggets like many experts expected they would.

But it could be a costly mistake to assume that one favorite’s downfall could portend a similar collapse. In some ways, Houston’s small-ball offense and high-variance three-point attack poses Miami-esque matchup problems for the LeBron James- and Anthony Davis-led Lakers, whose supporting players have shot poorly since day one of BubbleBall. The Lakers, however, played one of their best games of the playoffs in Monday’s Game 2 win over Houston, and it may be foolish to bet against an all-time great like James, who has shown year after year that once he figures out the matchup issues presented by an opponent, a series can be over in short order.

In all likelihood, the lesson to take from this unprecedented NBA postseason is that drawing conclusions from a situation that has never occurred before and may never happen again is a fool’s game. Like Feinberg said back in July, before the NBA restart had even begun: ““This is probably the most random experience we’re going to get ever in sports history.”

The good news for bettors is that the sportsbooks have to contend with the same randomness as the gamblers, and if you happen to smell an opportunity like Miami over Milwaukee before the oddsmakers catch up to it, the Bucks’ losses can win you a pile of bucks.

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