How to Live Bet the 2021 NBA Finals
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Predicting the outcome of an NBA game is difficult.
Yet, it’s even more difficult to consistently beat the point spread set by oddsmakers enough to overcome the vig (or juice) needed to make a profit — typically 52.38% on -110 bets.
It’s no surprise that live wagering has become one of the most popular forms of betting, as it allows sports fans to place a bet after the game has already begun.
Although live wagering has an even higher vig than the standard -110 bets that are offered pre-game, it has added a whole new dimension to sports betting, allowing you to watch, witness the flow of the game and ultimately gauge what you’re seeing before making a wager.
Since in-game odds change frequently based on what’s happening, bettors can use the ever-changing odds to their advantage, capitalize on the volatility of a game, set up arbitrage or middling opportunities and even hedge previous bets to make a profit.
The models and algorithms that sportsbooks use to create live lines are only as good as the information put into them, and there’s a ton of new information received after the game starts that we didn’t have before.
With the NBA Finals on the horizon for the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks and the volume of games drastically reduced with just two teams remaining, there’s no better time than now to talk about my approach in the live betting markets so you can maximize the remaining games of this season.
Only Live Bet During Commercial Breaks or Stoppages (For the Most Part)
There are some exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, in-play wagering isn’t optimal for NBA games or American sports in general.
In-play wagering is the most popular form of betting in Europe, where soccer is the most followed sport. Unlike top American sports, soccer is a game with limited stoppages and scoring opportunities, and bettors typically have more than enough time to place an in-game wager without a team scoring and the odds subsequently shifting.
Things are much different in basketball, as there’s a 24-second shot clock and the average possession is 14.4 seconds. With a high frequency of possessions and scoring, the odds can dramatically shift in a matter of seconds. Nonetheless, when it comes to American sports, in-play wagering is comparable to the Wild Wild West.
For starters, if you’re making an in-play wager and aren’t in the actual arena, you’re already at a disadvantage, as TV feeds are delayed for censorship reasons.
Since sportsbooks have real-time feeds, if you’re at home watching Devin Booker hit a mid-range jumper against Milwaukee, it’s likely the Bucks have already completed their following possession, and the odds are reflected in the market before you see it on television.
For those of you who are streaming sports, you’re at an even bigger disadvantage, as you’ll be 20 seconds behind the television feed, which is already delayed by almost 15-20 seconds. Since Xfinity switched from an HD feed on NBA League Pass, I’ve noticed that I can view a sportsbook’s lines and scores updating almost 40 seconds before I see it happen on my television.
It’s a lot better for games shown live on ESPN, TNT and ABC, but this is a major issue you’ll have to deal with if you’re looking to bet while action is going on.
Overcoming a delayed feed is hard enough on its own, but betting in-play means you’re also attempting to get an optimal number against the sportsbooks, many of which don’t operate in good faith when taking wagers during the time of play. Bettors are forced to deal with stalling wheels and delays, which prohibit them from getting favorable numbers.
There are some books that essentially free roll you, meaning they have their traders accept the live bet based on what happens on the court. If the team or total you bet is impacted by a favorable result on the following play, the bet is denied or offered at worse odds. If there’s an unfavorable result, it’s accepted, sometimes at worse odds than what you should have received. Or, if you get lucky, they’ll give you the bet at a better price. Either way, you’re not getting a good deal here.
That said, if you want to gain an advantage when betting live, I’d recommend waiting for stoppages, whether those are timeouts, commercial breaks or reviews. Like anything else, there are always exceptions, but you’d put yourself in the best position to succeed long-term by waiting for stoppages in play.
Pricing Mistakes Due to Bad Data
There are plenty of options that should satisfy the appetite of any bettor looking to bet on the NBA Finals (moneylines, spreads, and totals for the full game plus derivative markets).
Essentially, these lines can’t all be perfect.
Many of these prices are based on data from a third-party vendor that provides a data feed of the play-by-play and price information for the time and score of the game.
Every sportsbook has its own algorithm and method of creating live lines, but some of the data that could be factored into live lines include the pregame line, current score, time left in the game, and injuries.
The issue is, what happens when the data feed the sportsbooks use to base their live lines on isn’t correct?
Live wagering is still in its infant stages since these feeds still contain massive errors, and you’ll notice that some sportsbooks will have the wrong score, which drastically impacts pricing. If the Suns score a basket in the fourth quarter to go up 88-87, but the sportsbook shows that the Bucks scored and have an 89-86 lead, you’re going to see completely different prices than what should actually be offered.
Or what happens when a team turns the ball over or scores but the previous pricing still lags?
There are plenty of times in which I’ve recognized that a team should be laying an upwards of -175 but are still laying just -125 due to latency within the sportsbook’s live odds. I’ve seen far more extreme versions of this in which odds have lagged at sportsbooks for nearly 10-15 minutes of game time.
While you’ll rarely see a book’s line lag behind for that long, latency errors on sportsbook lines are a regular occurrence and are still available within the live betting markets in 2021.
These errors likely won’t be here forever, but if you want to get an idea of how often these mistakes occur, I’d recommend watching a game with your computer screen open with all your tabs set to various sportsbooks (or buy a Sports Insights subscription) and compare the prices on live lines. You’ll quickly notice the book that’s lagging and hanging a stale line.
In a sport in which just 5-10 seconds can provide an edge, there are exploitable advantages if you can find the mistakes.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is that if you exploit some of these mistakes too much, you run the risk of being limited or banned from sportsbooks who don’t like winners.
Nonetheless, managing accounts is a balancing act of not appearing too sharp while still finding some exploitable advantages.
This is the most obvious advantage within the live betting markets, but it’s also one that sportsbooks are able to recognize and properly price in for high-profile games like the ones we’ll see during the NBA Finals. The whole world will be watching, so if Devin Booker or Jrue Holiday gets injured, sportsbooks won’t hesitate to pull down the live line and offer a new line for in-game wagering.
Still, there are still ways to capitalize on a key injury in-game if you’re paying attention. If you notice a player limping, struggling with no lift on their jump shot or they can’t get up the floor, these are things that wouldn’t be priced into the market.
With major injuries, there’s often a lag period before the sportsbooks freeze the game and reopen with a new live line.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo got injured in the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks were laying just -140 despite being up 10 points with 7:14 left in the third quarter.
If you were quick on the draw, you could have laid -140 with the Hawks before the Bucks took a timeout. But by the time the network came back from commercial break, the Hawks were laying an upwards of -200 to win.
There are also injuries to non-star players that could have a significant impact on the line.
Imagine if a key role player such as Brook Lopez left the game due to an injury. Although sportsbooks might not be willing to shut down the line and readjust prices for Lopez as they did Antetokounmpo, it certainly significantly impacts their ability inside and the Suns would have an advantage inside with Ayton.
When it comes to injuries, you either need to capitalize on an injury that is hampering a player who’s attempting to play through it (ie: Trae Young in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals) and be quick on the draw to bet the injury news before the live markets shut down, or you have to recognize that an injury to a role player has more impact than the market is recognizing.
Capitalizing on Stylistic Advantages in Play
One of the biggest issues that the live markets don’t account for is specific game factors, as the lines are highly dependent on models.
Imagine it’s Game 4 of the Finals and Suns All-NBA and future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul gets into foul trouble with three fouls in the first half.
His backup, Cameron Payne, isn’t as good, but he does play at a much quicker pace, providing more possessions for the Suns. Take a look at the pace with Paul on the floor vs. Payne.
Paul On the Floor vs. Payne On the Floor
- 2021 Regular Season: Paul Pace: 98.92 | Payne Pace: 99.23
- 2021 Playoffs: Paul Pace: 95.76 | Payne Pace: 97.33
With the Suns playing more possessions with Payne on the floor, that may imply the total — one that’s likely based on Paul playing his standard minutes — could be too low.
Totals: How Many Possessions Will this Game Have?
Pace is one of the biggest factors when handicapping totals in the NBA, as the number of possessions can determine how high-scoring a game will be just as much as a team’s offensive efficiency.
The Wizards were just 18th in Offensive Rating this season (108.9) but were third in points per game (116.6) due to them playing at the fastest pace (106.4) in the league. Nonetheless, calculating the pace will provide you with a solid expectation of the number of possessions for the rest of the game.
There was a period of my life when I would watch basketball games with Microsoft Excel open and calculate the pace of games so I could get a handle on what the live total should be or if I should bet at halftime.
If I weren’t near a computer and was watching the game somewhere other than my home, I would pull out the calculator on my phone and input the following formula.
Fortunately, I don’t have to do that manually anymore as I’ve set up systems to auto-calculate game pace and even better there’s free sites and plugins which automatically calculate pace for you.
For the sake of this article, I’ll provide Basketball-Reference‘s definition of pace as well as the formula.
Pace – Pace Factor (available since the 1973-74 season in the NBA); the formula is 48 * ((Tm Poss + Opp Poss) / (2 * (Tm MP / 5))). Pace factor is an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team. (Note: 40 minutes is used in the calculation for the WNBA.)
There’s plenty of questions to ask yourself when looking for live wagering opportunities on totals. Are these teams playing faster or slower than expected based on how they typically play? What is the team’s strategy coming into the game?
Looking at Game 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Suns and Clippers, both games went over, as the Suns made a commitment to play faster to get into their offense quicker.
Game 5 had a pace of 97.5 possessions, and it flew over the total of 213.5. Knowing this information, the Game 6 total was adjusted to 214.5 and the total went over as well, as the Suns found efficient offense against a tired Clippers team that had played every other day for nearly a month.
There are other questions as well. How efficient are these offenses playing, and is it likely to slow down? What does the shot quality look like? Are the Bucks finding open 3s but failing to make them? Can we expect the Bucks shooting to regress as the game goes on? Are these teams collectively playing above expectations offensively?
If you have a model, you can compare your line to the in-game line, but you can also look at the gameplay and figure out if you have an edge or not.
Capitalizing on Volatility: The NBA is a Game of Runs
The NBA has always been a game of runs.
Teams go up and teams go down throughout the course of the game, but the pace-and-space era full of lots of possessions and teams shooting upwards of 30-40 3-point attempts a game has increased the volatility of an average NBA game.
Root for the comeback!
— NBABet (@nbabet) July 6, 2021
We’ve seen far more 15- and 20-point comebacks in recent years than we have in the pre-pace-and-space era.
The Clippers were down 25 in the third quarter of Game 6 in the Western Conference Semifinals and came back to win outright to advance to their first Western Conference Finals ever. In today’s game with all of the 3-point shooting, no team is ever out of a game.
To pull a quote from Kevin Pelton and Baxter Holmes’ article on NBA comebacks during the 2019 season:
“Teams that amass 20-point leads tend to be unusually hot from 3-point range, making 55.3 percent of their shots from downtown up to the point where their advantage peaks, while the team that falls behind shoots just 28.5 percent on 3s. And then, over the course of the comeback, that advantage flips. During the comeback, trailing teams shoot 45.7 percent from beyond the arc to a dismal 22.2 percent for the teams that lose their lead — more than doubling them up from long distance.”
Fortunately for us, this is an advantage that NBA bettors have today.
Provided that a team is showing a pulse, you can capitalize on the volatility of a game once a team goes down double digits by getting a live line that is far better than anything you could have gotten pregame.
You could also set up middle opportunities for yourself in-game if you’re inclined to buy back on games to limit your exposure.
Learning Rotations is Key
This is not something I do frequently, but oftentimes, there’s an edge when it comes to fading specific lineups.
For example, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, there was an opportunity to bet on the Hawks in the second quarter after they went down 14 points in the first.
Entering the second quarter down 36-22 with more scoring coming off the bench than the Bucks — who had a hot start without Antetokounmpo — made for an opportunity to capitalize on a small letdown period from the Bucks.
Knowing the rotations of teams can also play a factor in getting an edge in a blowout.
Do you think the Suns are deeper than the Bucks? If so, you can isolate the two bench units and find an edge as well. Blowouts can drastically change the entire flow of a game as far as the total is concerned.
Typically, when one team is getting blown out, we can expect both teams to empty the benches and for the pace to slow down dramatically as both teams just want to get out of the game without any injuries.
There are exceptions, as there are certain teams with deep benches full of solid scorers who are eager for their opportunity to get some playing time off the bench.
However, for the most part, looking under on the total should give you a positive Expected Value proposition.
There are plenty of ways to find an edge, and with a limited number of NBA games remaining this season, you should have plenty of ways to maximize your opportunities to make money going forward.