Cavs and Warriors changing how Vegas handicaps NBA playoffs

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

As Las Vegas oddsmakers monitor NBA free agency and adjust the betting market accordingly, they are still brainstorming how they could have prevented a recent pummeling. The playoffs may have bored casual fans but they certainly woke up sportsbooks.

"This was the worst playoffs that I can remember in 20 years of being in the business," Jeff Sherman, NBA oddsmaker at the Las Vegas Westgate Superbook, told ESPN.

As David Purdum reported, Nevada's sportsbooks lost $4.4 million on basketball in May. It's the largest monthly hoops loss ever for the state's books, according to Nevada Gaming Control, easily besting April 1997, when the books lost $3.5 million on basketball.

Has the public actually figured out this whole sports betting thing? Well, not exactly; this postseason was just tailor-made for their usual betting habits. But with two dominant postseason teams, the public did demonstrate an aversion to laying large point spreads of or near double-digits.

"We noticed a shift. The public is going away from handicapping the point spread and instead just backing the better team to win with the money line," Sherman said, pointing to the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers combining to win 24 of 25 playoff games before meeting in the NBA Finals. Expect changes next year.

"If we see the same circumstance with two teams on a path to the Finals, we will use a higher money line associated with that particular point spread," Sherman said.

The public did continue the predictable habit of betting over the total. And they were rewarded, as the over posted an amazing 48-30-1 record this postseason.

"John Q. Public was parlaying to the over no matter what and 75 percent of the parlays had the over connected to [them]," South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. "We have to protect ourselves a little better."

Sportsbooks already made one significant adjustment this postseason: When a team trailed a series 2-0 and hosted Game 3, oddsmakers applied a tax on the first quarter and first-half point spreads. First-half point spreads typically equate to about half the game line with a similar ratio for the first quarter line. For example, if a team is favored by 4 points for the game, it will be favored by 2 or 2.5 in the first half and 1 or 1.5 in the first quarter.

But oddsmakers have now abandoned their regular-season approach in this specific situation. The rationale is that a desperate team figures to corral loose balls and play tighter defense. Plus, the higher-seeded team with the series lead will relax. Those contrasting efforts figure to manifest themselves early in the game with a spirited home crowd, as opposed to a larger sample size of four quarters.

In this specific spot during the 2017 NBA playoffs, home favorites went 7-3 against the spread in the first quarter and 8-2 in the first half. And that includes some instances where the first-half spread was unfathomably higher than the game line.

"It just kept winning and winning and winning. It was an unbelievable spread run," said NBA handicapper and ESPN contributor Erin Rynning. "One of the reasons it was such a strong angle for years is that you could always count on the public to keep backing the higher seed after looking so good in the first two games. But now the public caught on, so the oddsmakers have to adjust."

"You can't live and die by the old school way of doing this stuff," Vaccaro said, citing his four decades in Las Vegas. "You used to be able to have a manual but now you throw that book in the garbage."

"When you look at any sport, all year, the hardest thing to do is handicap an emotional edge," Sherman said. "When you have a team down 2-0, you know the emotional edge lies there. The first-half lines are going to be even larger next year."

Bookmakers are always on alert, especially in a city that never sleeps.