How To Bet on the NBA Playoffs First Round

A detailed view of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. Stacy Revere/Getty Images/AFP

The NBA Playoffs have officially begun, with the first games of the first-round series tipping off over the weekend.

After 82 games, things change significantly, in terms of intensity and urgency, once the second season begins.

While college basketball’s championship is known as March Madness, things are generally saner at the professional level.

Here’s a look at what you need to know as you try to pick winners in the race to the Larry O’Brien trophy.

The Big Dogs Eat

The college basketball tournament is famous for all the early-round upsets. Some of the top teams in the nation end up losing—and busting brackets—thanks to the NCAA Tournament’s one-and-done format.

At the NBA level, the favorites don’t face quite the same level of risk. In general, the higher-seeded teams are able to win and advance past the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

How safe are they? Last season, in eight first-round series, the better-seeded team won seven times. The only upset was No. 5 Atlanta over No. 4 New York.

In 2020, despite the bubble wiping out home-court advantage, the favorites were just as successful, with the better seeds again going 7-1 in the eighth opening series.

The only upset, once again, was a No. 5 over a No. 4, when Miami beat Indiana. In 2019, the favored teams swept all eight series.

The last time a No. 3 seed lost in the first round was 2018 when New Orleans swept Portland. The last time a No. 2 lost was in 2010, when San Antonio topped Dallas.

The last No. 1 to lose was in 2012 when Philadelphia upset Chicago. Over the last 10 postseasons, No. 1 seeds have won 19 of 20 opening-round series.

No. 2’s won 20 of 20. No. 3’s won 18 of 20. That’s a combined 57-3, .950 series winning percentage for the top three teams in each conference. In other words, picking an early-round upset is a fool’s mission.

By contrast, the four-five matchup is ripe for an upset. No. 5 seeds actually have a winning record over the last 10 years, going 12-8 against the No. 4 seed in the opening round.

Not Close, No Cigar

Not only have the top seeds dominated the first round of the NBA Playoffs, but for the most part, the series also hasn’t been close.

Over the last three years, the top three seeds have swept their opening-round opponent four times in 18 series.

That’s a 22.2 percent chance of going 4-0. That’s twice as likely as an opening-round series for the top three seeds going to a seventh game.

That’s happened just twice in the last 18 first-round series for the No. 1 to No. 3 seeds. Overall, the top three seeds have gone 72-22, .766, in the opening round.

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As in the series results, the No. 4 vs. No. 5 first-round series has been much more evenly matched. There have been two game sevens over the last three years, as well as two sweeps—one for the No. 4 seed and one for the No. 5.

Four seeds have a slight advantage in the game results, going 17-15, .531, over the last three years.

What Does It All Mean?

History has shown that the NBA is a top-heavy league. The teams that have shown over 82 games that they’re superior generally continue to prove it during the playoffs.

The idea of “flipping a switch and turning it on” just hasn’t existed at this level. It’s always fun to accurately predict an upset.

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It’s just as much fun to cash a winning ticket, however, and, in the NBA Playoffs first round, those two thrills are mutually exclusive.