Should You Bet on the Favorites in the NBA Playoffs?

Should You Bet on the Favorites in the NBA Playoffs?
© USA Today

When considering how you’ll spend your NBA betting money in the playoffs, a question that comes up is: How often does the No. 1 seed or No. 2 seed in the NBA Playoffs win the NBA Finals?

So, let’s dive into the evidence for betting on the top seeds.

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Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, as the No. 3 seed, won the Eastern Conference and played the Western Conference Champions Phoenix Suns, the No. 2 seed, in the NBA Finals.

The Bucks won the title in six. The last time a No. 3-seed won the championship was 2011, when the Dallas Mavericks won 4-2 over the Miami Heat.

Overall, the 3-seed has appeared in six NBA Finals and won four.

Top Seeds Good for Two Decades

Over the past 20 NBA playoffs, 13 No. 1 seeds have made it to the Finals.

In 2008 and 2016, the two No. 1 seeds faced off in the Finals.

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played in ‘08 with the Celtics winning 4-2, covering the spread in all six of the games.

In 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James were down 3 games to 1, and won the final three games against Golden State. The winner in each game covered the spread.

So, the 13 No. 1 seeds to reach the NBA Finals account for a possible maximum of 40 No. 1 seeds (20 from each conference) or just 33%.

A No. 1 seed that was not playing the No. 1 seed from the opposing conference went on to win eight of nine championships.

In those games, the No. 1 seed went 33-19 straight-up and 29-21-2 against the spread for 58% winning bets including a 20-31-1 Over-Under record, producing 61% winning Under wagers.

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How No. 1 Seeds Have Fared in NBA Finals since 2002

Year (Seed) East (Seed) West Winner
2002 (1) New Jersey Nets (3) Los Angeles Lakers Lakers 4-0
2003 (2) New Jersey Nets (1) San Antonio Spurs Spurs 4-2
2008 (1) Boston Celtics (1) Los Angeles Lakers Celtics 4-2
2009 (3) Orlando Magic (1) Los Angeles Lakers Lakers 4-2
2010 (4) Boston Celtics (1) Los Angeles Lakers Lakers 4-3
2013 (1) Miami Heat (2) San Antonio Spurs Heat 4-3
2014 (2) Miami Heat (1) San Antonio Spurs Spurs 4-1
2015 (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (1) Golden State Warriors Warriors 4-2
2016 (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (1) Golden State Warriors Cavaliers 4-3
2017 (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (1) Golden State Warriors Warriors 4-1
2019 (2) Toronto Raptors (1) Golden State Warriors Raptors 4-1
2020 (5) Miami Heat (1) Los Angeles Lakers Lakers 4-2

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The No. 2 Seeds Excel the Most

Of a possible 40 teams that were seeded No. 2, 18 of them, or 45%, made it to the NBA Finals.

In two of those series, both No. 2 seeds from their respective conferences met, the last time being 2012, when the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1.

The Thunder won and covered the spread in Game 1 as five-point home favorites, but then lost four straight games, failing to cover the spread in all of them.

In the 2005 Finals, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Detroit Pistons in seven. The Spurs went 4-3 straight-up and against the spread and covered the spread in the games they won.

Over the past 20 NBA Finals, when the No. 2-seed went to the Finals and faced a team not seeded No. 2, they earned a 36-39 straight-up record, 30-43-2 against the spread mark for 41% wins, including a 32-40–3 Over-Under record, good for 44% winning Under bets.

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How No. 2 Seeds Have Fared in NBA Finals since 2002

Year (Seed) East (Seed) West Winner
2003 (2) New Jersey Nets (1) San Antonio Spurs Spurs 4-2
2005 (2) Detroit Pistons (2) San Antonio Spurs Spurs 4-3
2006 (2) Miami Heat (4) Dallas Mavericks Heat 4-2
2007 (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (3) San Antonio Spurs Spurs 4-0
2011 (2) Miami Heat (3) Dallas Mavericks Mavericks 4-2
2012 (2) Miami Heat (2) Oklahoma City Thunder Heat 4-1
2013 (1) Miami Heat (2) San Antonio Spurs Heat 4-3
2014 (2) Miami Heat (1) San Antonio Spurs Spurs 4-1
2015 (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (1) Golden State Warriors Warriors 4-2
2017 (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (1) Golden State Warriors Warriors 4-1
2018 (4) Cleveland Cavaliers (2) Golden State Warriors Warriors 4-0
2019 (2) Toronto Raptors (1) Golden State Warriors Raptors 4-2
2021 (3) Milwaukee Bucks (2) Phoenix Suns Bucks 4-2

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No. 4 Hasn’t Been Lucky

Over the past 20 NBA Playoff seasons, the No. 4 seed has made it to the Finals just three times, so that does not bode well for the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks.

In the 2019 Finals, the 4-seed Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Warriors and only covered the spread in Game 1 as a 12-point underdog.

In the 2010 Finals, the Celtics were the 4-seed and won the Eastern Conference, but lost in seven games to the Lakers.

In 2006, the Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, won the first two games of the series, then lost four consecutive games to the Miami Heat. The Mavericks covered the spread in four of the six games.

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Do Not Bet Any Seed Lower than 4 to Make the NBA Finals

Over the past 20 NBA Finals, only one team seeded lower than fourth has made it and that was the No. 5-seed Heat in 2020. They lost in “the bubble” series, played in Orlando because of the pandemic, to the Lakers, the top seed in the West, 4-2.

The No. 3 seed has made just five Finals over the past 20 seasons. But those teams won four championships. They have a 17-11 straight-up record and a 16-9-3 against the spread mark, good for 64% winning bets, including an 11-16-1 Over-Under record, for 60% winning Under wagers.

It sounds to me like we may want to consider an NBA Finals matchup bet of the Boston Celtics vs. the Memphis Grizzlies, both No. 2 seeds. Sportsbooks are offering +5000 for the Celtics to defeat the Grizzlies and +5000 for the Grizzlies to defeat the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

I’ll gladly put pizza money on those bets right now.

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