It is difficult to predict the outcome of an NBA game.
However, beating the point spread set by oddsmakers consistently enough to cover the vig (or juice) required to make a profit — typically 52.38% on -110 bets — is even more difficult.
It’s no surprise that live wagering has grown in popularity, as it allows sports fans to place a wager after the game has already begun.
Although live wagering has a higher vig than pre-game -110 bets, 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.
Because in-game odds change frequently based on what’s happening, bettors can take advantage of the volatility of a game, set up arbitrage or middling opportunities, and even hedge previous bets to profit.
The models and algorithms used by online sportsbooks to generate live lines are only as good as the information fed into them, and there is a plethora of new information received after the game begins that we did not have previously.
With the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals and the volume of games drastically reduced with only two teams remaining, there’s no better time than now to discuss my approach in the live betting markets so you can maximize the remaining games of this season.
Only bet in real time during commercial breaks or stoppages (For the Most Part)
There are some exceptions to this rule, but in-play wagering isn’t recommended for NBA games or American sports in general.
In Europe, where soccer is the most popular sport, in-play betting is the most popular form of betting. Soccer, unlike other major American sports, has 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 shifting.
Basketball is much different, with a 24-second shot clock and an average possession time of 14.4 seconds. The odds can change dramatically in a matter of seconds when there is a high frequency of possessions and scoring. However, when it comes to American sports, in-play betting is akin to the Wild West.
To begin, if you’re placing an in-play wager while not in the arena, you’re already at a disadvantage because TV feeds are delayed for censorship reasons.
Because sportsbooks have real-time feeds, if you’re at home watching Devin Booker hit a mid-range jumper against Milwaukee, the Bucks have most likely already completed their next possession, and the odds are reflected in the market before you see it on TV.
Those of you who stream sports will be at an even greater disadvantage because you will be 20 seconds behind the television feed, which is already delayed by nearly 15-20 seconds. I’ve noticed that since Xfinity switched from an HD feed on NBA League Pass, I can see a sportsbook’s lines and scores updating nearly 40 seconds before I see it on my television.
It’s much better for games shown live on ESPN, TNT, and ABC, but this is a major issue you’ll have to deal with if you want to bet during the action.
Overcoming a delayed feed is difficult enough, but betting in-play means you’re also attempting to get the best number against the sportsbooks, many of which do not operate in good faith when accepting wagers during play. Bettors must deal with stalling wheels and delays, which prevent them from getting favorable odds.
Some books essentially free roll you, which means that their traders accept the live bet based on what happens on the court. If a favorable outcome on the following play affects the team or total you bet on, the bet is denied or offered at worse odds. If an unfavorable outcome occurs, it is accepted, sometimes at a disadvantage to what you should have received. Or, if you’re lucky, they’ll give you a better price on the bet. In either case, you’re not getting a good deal.
However, if you want to gain an advantage when betting live, I recommend waiting for timeouts, commercial breaks, or reviews. There are always exceptions, but you’d be in the best position to succeed in the long run if you waited for play to stop.
Pricing Errors Caused by Inaccurate Data
There are numerous options available to any bettor interested in betting on the NBA Finals (moneylines, spreads, and totals for the full game plus derivative markets).
Many of these prices are based on data from a third-party vendor who provides a data feed of play-by-play and price information for the game’s time and score.
Every sportsbook has its own algorithm and method for generating live lines, but some of the data that could be considered include the pregame line, current score, time remaining in the game, and injuries.
What happens when the data feed on which the sportsbooks base their live lines is incorrect?
Live betting is still in its infancy because these feeds contain massive errors, and you’ll notice that some sportsbooks have the wrong score, which has a significant impact on 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, the prices will be drastically different.
What happens if a team turns the ball over or scores, but the previous pricing remains a laggard?
There have been numerous occasions when I’ve recognized that a team should be laying up to -175 but is only laying -125 due to latency in the sportsbook’s live odds. I’ve seen far more extreme cases of this, where odds at sportsbooks lag for nearly 10-15 minutes of game time.
While it’s rare to see a book’s line lag behind for that long, latency errors on sportsbook lines are common and still available in live betting markets in 2021.
These errors are unlikely to persist indefinitely, but if you want to see how frequently these errors occur, watch a game with your computer screen open and all of your tabs set to various sportsbooks (or purchase a Sports Insights subscription) and compare the prices on live lines. You’ll notice the book that’s lagging and hanging a stale line right away.
There are exploitable advantages in a sport where 5-10 seconds can provide an edge if you can find the mistakes.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is that if you take advantage of some of these mistakes too frequently, you risk being restricted or banned from sportsbooks that don’t like winners.
Managing accounts, on the other hand, is a balancing act of not appearing too harsh while still finding some exploitable advantages.
This is the most obvious advantage in live betting markets, but it’s also one that sportsbooks can recognize and properly price in for high-profile games like the NBA Finals. Because the entire world will be watching, if Devin Booker or Jrue Holiday are injured, sportsbooks will not hesitate to remove the live line and replace it with a new line for in-game wagering.
If you pay attention, there are still ways to capitalize on a key injury in-game. If you see a player limping, struggling with no lift on their jump shot, or struggling to get up the floor, these are not marketable characteristics.
When there is a major injury, there is frequently a lag period before the sportsbooks freeze the game and reopen with a new live line.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo went down in the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks were laying -140 despite being up 10 points with 7:14 left in the third.
You could have laid -140 with the Hawks before the Bucks took a timeout if you were quick on the draw. By the time the network returned from commercial, the Hawks were favored by as much as -200.
Injuries to non-star players could also have a significant impact on the line.
Consider what would happen if a key role player, such as Brook Lopez, was injured. Although sportsbooks are unlikely to close the line and re-adjust prices for Lopez as they did for Antetokounmpo, it does have a significant impact on their ability inside, and the Suns would have an advantage with Ayton.
When it comes to injuries, you can either capitalize on an injury that is hindering a player who is 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 can recognize that an injury to a role player has more impact than the market is recognizing.
Taking Advantage of Stylistic Advantages in Play
As the lines are highly dependent on models, one of the most significant issues that live markets do not account for is specific game factors.
Assume it’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and Suns All-NBA and future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul has three fouls in the first half.
Cameron Payne, his backup, isn’t as good, but he plays at a much faster pace, giving the Suns more possessions. Examine the pace with Paul on the floor vs. Payne.
On the Floor: Paul vs. Payne
- Paul Pace: 98.92 | Payne Pace: 99.23 in 2021 regular season
- Paul Pace: 95.76 | Payne Pace: 97.33 in the 2021 playoffs
With the Suns having more possessions with Payne on the floor, the total — which is most likely based on Paul playing his normal minutes — could be too low.
Total Possessions: How Many Will This Game Have?
Pace is one of the most important factors to consider when handicapping totals in the NBA, as the number of possessions can influence how high-scoring a game is just as much as a team’s offensive efficiency.
The Wizards finished 18th in offensive rating (108.9) but third in points per game (116.6) because they played at the league’s fastest pace (106.4). Nonetheless, calculating the pace will give you a good idea of how many possessions you’ll have for the rest of the game.
I used to watch basketball games with Microsoft Excel open, calculating the pace of the game so I could figure out what the live total should be or if I should bet at halftime.
If I wasn’t near a computer and wasn’t watching the game at home, I’d pull out my phone’s calculator and enter the following formula.
Fortunately, I no longer have to do that manually because I’ve set up systems to automatically calculate game pace, and even better, there are free sites and plugins that do it for you.
I’ll provide Basketball-definition Reference’s of pace as well as the formula for the sake of this article.
Pace Factor (available in the NBA since the 1973-74 season; the formula is 48 * ((Tm Poss + Opp Poss) / (2 * (Tm MP / 5)). The pace factor is an estimate of a team’s possessions per 48 minutes. (Note: For the WNBA, 40 minutes is used in the calculation.)
When looking for live wagering opportunities on totals, there are numerous questions to consider. Are these teams playing faster or slower than expected based on their previous performance? What is the team’s game plan going into the game?
Game 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Suns and Clippers both went over because the Suns made a commitment to play faster in order to get into their offense faster.
Game 5 had a pace of 97.5 possessions per minute and a total of 213.5. Knowing this, the total for Game 6 was adjusted to 214.5, and the total also went over, as the Suns found efficient offense against a tired Clippers team that had played every other day for nearly a month.
There are additional questions. How efficient are these offenses, and will they slow down? How does the shot quality look? Are the Bucks finding open 3s but failing to make them? Can we expect the Bucks’ shooting to deteriorate as the game progresses? Are these teams collectively outperforming expectations on offense?
You can compare your line to the in-game line if you have a model, but you can also look at the gameplay to see if you have an advantage.
Taking Advantage of Volatility: The NBA is a Game of Runs
The NBA has always been a running game.
Teams rise and fall throughout the game, but the pace-and-space era with lots of possessions and teams shooting 30-40 3-point attempts per game has increased the volatility of an average NBA game.
In recent years, we’ve seen far more 15- and 20-point comebacks than in the pre-pace-and-space era.
The Clippers trailed by 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, but rallied to win outright and advance to their first Western Conference Finals appearance. With all of the 3-point shooting in today’s game, no team is ever out of a game.
To quote Kevin Pelton and Baxter Holmes from their article on NBA comebacks in 2019:
“Teams with 20-point leads are 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 trailing shoots only 28.5 percent on 3s.” Then, over the course of the comeback, that advantage is reversed. During the comeback, trailing teams shoot 45.7 percent from beyond the arc compared to a dismal 22.2 percent for losing teams — more than doubling them from long range.”
Fortunately for us, NBA bettors have this advantage today.
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 if a team is showing a pulse.
If you’re inclined to buy back on games to limit your exposure, you could also set up middle opportunities for yourself in-game.
Rotations are essential for learning
This is not something I do often, but there is often an advantage when it comes to fading specific lineups.
For example, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, after the Hawks were down 14 points in the first quarter, there was an opportunity to bet on them in the second quarter.
Entering the second quarter down 36-22 and with more scoring coming off the bench than the Bucks — who had a hot start without Antetokounmpo — provided an opportunity to capitalize on the Bucks’ minor letdown.
Knowing team rotations can also help you gain an advantage in a blowout.
Do you believe the Suns are more talented than the Bucks? If this is the case, you can isolate the two bench units and also find an edge. Blowouts can drastically alter the overall flow of a game in terms of the total.
When one team is getting blown out, we can expect both teams to empty their benches and the pace to slow dramatically as both teams just want to get out of the game without getting hurt.
There are some exceptions, such as teams with deep benches full of solid scorers who are eager to get some playing time off the bench.
However, looking under on the total should give you a positive Expected Value proposition for the most part.
There are numerous ways to gain an advantage, and with only a few NBA games remaining this season, you should have plenty of opportunities to profit in the future.