Should Recent Comebacks Influence Betting Strategy?

by Taylor Smith
on June 5, 2017

Unless you happen to be living under a rock, you are likely aware that the Golden State Warriors jumped out to a quick 1-0 series lead in the NBA Finals on Thursday night. The Warriors thrashed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, though it’s certainly far too soon for Cavs’ faithful to panic. Of course, they found themselves in a far more dire predicament just a year ago against the same team. The Cavs stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to dethrone the Warriors and claim the franchise’s first NBA championship just under 12 months ago.

Following Golden State’s Game 1 triumph, Bovada now lists the Warriors as -500 favorites to claim the title, while the Cavs are at +350. Prior to the first game, the Warriors were listed at -240 with Cleveland at +200. So the line certainly shifted, though not dramatically. The fact that one team still has LeBron James counts for something, at least. Vegas isn’t writing off the Cavaliers after one defeat, nor should they.

Comebacks have been rather trendy in championship rounds lately. Within the past year alone, we’ve seen the Cavs’ aforementioned come-from-behind antics, the Patriots’ crazy 28-3 comeback win over the Falcons in the Super Bowl, and the Cubs mounting a 3-1 resurgence of their own to claim their first World Series title in more than a century.

All three of these wild comebacks surely threw bettors for a loop. Nobody could have imagined last year’s Warriors team – which won an NBA record 73 games during the regular season – would cough up a situation in which they needed to win just one of three games to clinch their second ring in as many years. But they did. The Falcons were obliterating the Patriots in the Super Bowl before they seemingly ran out of gas. And the Cubs exorcising over 100 years worth of demons to crawl back and win the World Series in seven games was legitimately shocking.

Underdog Betting Impact

As a bettor, you’re always looking for any edge you can find. Frankly, that can be fairly difficult, especially in situations such as those mentioned above. Let’s discuss the NBA Finals, for example.

Golden State won three of the first four games of the series, all of which were settled with double-digit margins. Steph Curry dumped in 38 points to lead the Dubs to a 108-97 victory in Game 4 in Cleveland, and the writing appeared to be on the wall for the Cavaliers. While you can never bank on a team flat-out quitting in a championship series, the Cavs had to be feeling deflated after that one. They were facing an incredibly daunting task. In order to win, they were going to have to win three straight games against arguably the greatest team ever assembled with two of the games taking place away from home.

As a bettor, you would have been taking the flier of all fliers to bet on the Cavaliers to come back and win that series after Game 4. Sure, the value was surely insane considering the odds were monumentally long, but what kind of lunatic could have legitimately said he/she felt confident in betting on the Cavs to do the impossible? Realistically, it was a bet devoid of any logic at all.

Sure, Cleveland wound up playing their tails off in the end, but they were also the beneficiaries of some amazing fortune. Curry wasn’t ever quite himself after injuring his knee during the first round series against the Rockets, while the NBA’s decision to suspend Draymond Green for Game 6 effectively turned the series on its head. After the Cavs won Game 5 in Oakland, though, smart bettors should have hopped right back on that Cleveland bandwagon. The odds likely improved for Cleveland a bit, but they were still a longshot to win two more games. Green’s suspension was going to be huge for Game 6, but a Game 7 at Oracle Arena was still a daunting proposition.

As mentioned previously, though, sharp minds would have jumped back on the Cavs after they shockingly throttled the Warriors in Game 5. Cleveland was still obviously far from a sure thing at that point, but it was also likely the first time a shred of doubt started to enter the Warriors’ collective minds. LeBron and co. grabbed that mental edge and never looked back.

When Favorites Storm Back

The Cavaliers were one thing. Nobody expected them to topple the champs, but they wound up doing so in the most unbelievable way imaginable. However, the Patriots and Cubs entered their respective title game/series as heavy favorites. Sure, the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Indians were excellent teams in their own regard, but the Patriots and Cubs were juggernauts.

As a result, it was quite shocking to see both teams fall into such deep holes early on. The spread on Super Bowl LI was just three points, but New England had a legitimate advantage all over the field and on the sidelines. This team has been to numerous Super Bowls over the last decade-plus, while the Falcons’ roster and staff was full of relative newbies.

For the first 35 minutes or so, however, none of that mattered. The Falcons looked like the only team interested in actually winning the game to start and quickly jumped out to what seemed to be an insurmountable 28-3 lead. If you had placed a hefty pregame bet on the Patriots to win this thing, you were probably frantically trying to hedge and place a bunch of live prop bets in order to try and soften the blow. Either that, or you were doubling down and putting money on the very small chance that the Patriots would actually come all the way back to win it.

The concept of “momentum” in sports is hotly debated. I’m one that tends to believe numbers matter more than intangible things like momentum, but numbers can only get you so far as a bettor. You can rely on the probabilities for the most part, but you can never account for variance. Sometimes, things happen despite the numbers suggesting they shouldn’t.

The Patriots had no business storming back and winning the game after falling into that 28-3 hole early in the third quarter, but they did. Momentum seems to exist in football more than any other sport. Atlanta was steamrolling through the first half-plus and the Patriots could do nothing to stop them. However, one big play can have a huge impact and swing the game completely in the other direction. That play in Super Bowl LI was the strip-sack of Matt Ryan by Dont’a Hightower.

Down 28-12 early in the fourth quarter, Hightower came flying around the edge and pummelled Ryan, jarring the ball loose. The Patriots recovered, and quickly went on to score a touchdown to get within eight points. Were I betting on this game, I’d have scrambled to the computer and put a considerable amount of cash on New England to win the game the second the Pats jumped on that fumble. You could tell the Falcons were starting to sweat, while the Patriots were simultaneously rediscovering their collective mojo.

Was the Pats’ comeback victory inevitable at that point? Far from it, but if you were watching the game it sure felt like there was no way the Patriots were going to come up short in their comeback. People say that basketball is a “game of runs,” but the same can be said for football. It’s relatively easy to go through a game and identify plays that wind up factoring hugely into the ultimate outcome. As a bettor, you need to be on high alert for such things and act quickly and accordingly.

Baseball Is Different

Basketball and football historically tend to be a bit more predictable than baseball. Baseball comes with an incredible amount of variance on a game-by-game basis. Over the course of a 162-game regular season, great teams will go through curious lulls while awful teams will go on brief hot streaks. It just happens. Sometimes, these things happen in the postseason.

The Cubs were an unstoppable force last season. They won 103 games and won their division by a whopping 17.5 games. By any metric, they were the most dominant team in baseball last season. Still, winning the World Series despite a stellar regular season has hardly been a can’t-miss recipe for success in baseball. Take the 2001 Seattle Mariners, for instance. They tied a big league record by winning 114 regular season games. However, they were promptly taken down in the first round of the postseason that year by the New York Yankees, who eventually won the World Series. Great regular season teams do not always get it done once October rolls around.

Nobody thought much of the Indians’ chances heading into the postseason. Sure, they were excellent during the regular season, as well, but they were slapped with a number of crucial injuries that many predicted would ultimately doom them in the playoffs. They persevered, though, and were on the brink of winning it all with a commanding 3-1 lead over Chicago.

A 3-1 lead in baseball feels quite a bit different than a 3-1 lead in basketball, though. In baseball, so much can change on a game-to-game basis. In basketball, the court dimensions are the same and the players are the same every night. In baseball, the pitchers are constantly shuffling, weather plays a role and every ballpark comes with different shapes and sizes. As a result, baseball tends to be less predictable. Having your ace on the mound against another team’s No. 5 starter isn’t a guaranteed victory.

In the history of baseball, 13 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series in 82 chances. The rate of success in the same situation is far more dire in basketball. Baseball games tend to be something of a coin flip. There’s a reason every game comes with a spread of 1.5 runs. It’s far less predictive than other sports like football or basketball.

As a result, there really isn’t a “bad” bet when it comes to baseball. The Cubs were obviously longshots to come back and beat the Indians, but that seemed like a far more likely scenario than the Cavs accomplishing the same feat against the Warriors. Don’t be shy about betting on an underdog in baseball, because “underdog” is a relative term in this spot. Sure, the Indians were favored up 3-1, but was anybody shocked that the more talented Cubs team came back to win? Before the series began, very few thought Cleveland was going to come out victorious in the series. The manner in which they blew it was fairly surprising, but the overall result was what most expected going in.

Going Forward

So, here we are in the NBA Finals once again. Golden State has given itself an early lead, and most expect them to do what they couldn’t do a year ago and close this thing out. Should last year’s collapse scare you if you’re a Warriors fan or encourage you if you’re a Cavaliers fan? Maybe, but we can’t forget that this year is different. Kevin Durant is a part of this series now. The Cavs are better than they were last season, but their chances still come down to whether LeBron can lift them above the four-pronged All-Star attack on the other side.

If you’re going to be betting on the Finals at this point, the value certainly lies with Cleveland at +350. If they drop Game 2, the odds are just going to keep getting longer.

The Cavs still potentially have three home games in this series, but in order to win they’re obviously going to have to win at least one in Oakland. That looks like a tall order right now, but don’t forget what this bunch was able to accomplish a short time ago facing even longer odds.

The Warriors are probably going to win it this time, but smart bettors will be on the lookout for any sort of unforeseen plot twist that can flip the script in Cleveland’s favor. Never count out the underdog, especially when the underdog happens to have LeBron James.

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