Not Exactly the Thrill of Victory

Boston 107 Utah 102 

A win for me, with the Celts covering by half a point.

You’ll have to take my word for this: I’m still having fun, and I enjoy working my way through a mystery. It’s also fair to say that playing, watching and talking basketball has taken up an indefensible number of my leisure hours for decades. So it’s even more engaging to think about risk in a field that has many happy memories.

That said…yeesh. Last night didn’t feel like a win. I thought Boston would cover easily, and they did anything but. Another game in which the oddsmakers were dead right. Another in which the superior team either couldn’t put its rival away, or opted to conserve energy for tougher games ahead. The former explanation seems like storytelling (Richard Jefferson playing with unusual fire and focus against his former team), an entertaining yarn for the sports section; the latter feels closer to the truth.

The difference between understanding and feeling an idea; I knew NBA teams don’t give a maximum effort every minute, because of the rigors of the long season. But before I started thinking about spreads, I didn’t grasp how that affected the progression of games in terms of leads, surges, and quarter-to-quarter strategy. I think I understood how good teams target the third quarter to put away inferior opponents–especially on the road–but I never kept track of the cumulative effect that conservation of energy has on the margins of games. Great teams are comfortable cutting it close. Uncomfortably close.

Last night, Utah opened with a 10-4 burst; the kind of crowd-pleasing home start that doesn’t mean much in a professional game. What followed, however, was telling: Boston responded with a 23-4 blitz. A squad in college or even high school might survive that kind of lull and still win, but in the NBA, it meant Utah couldn’t keep up with Boston, and barring injuries and/or imbalanced refereeing, it signalled a Jazz defeat was almost certainly 40 minutes away. The game ended in the NBA form I’ve only just grasped: the five-point rout. A contest whose math suggested it hung in the balance until the final minute (when Utah had possession down a basket and failed to convert), but whose reality was all but controlled by the superior team.

More to ponder. In the meantime, I’m glad I made good calls on Denver/Atlanta and Phoenix/New Jersey last night, and I’m chastened by the fact that the sting of early wagering losses caused me to overlook Washington regressing to its lowly mean at home against Chicago. Note to self: maybe the key is small, consistent bets on great defenses asserting themselves against dysfunctional offenses. Which might explain how the Bullets can beat the spread against offensive juggernauts like Miami and Dallas, but not against a Chicago squad with Noah back in the starting lineup.

For tonight, I’m mulling Dallas giving 1.5 at Philly, Golden State getting 6.5 at Indiana, and travelling San Antonio without its point guard getting 1 in Memphis.

I like Golden State to cover in the wake of a last-second loss to Minnesota and facing an overnight to D.C. for a back-to-backer at the Verizon Center and faux Boston Garden in the next three days. Having just kicked off a run of 12 road games in 15 starts, the Warriors almost have to target tonight’s scuffle for a maximum effort to avoid a long losing streak.

And I suspect either Philly or Memphis will win at home against a superior opponent. The trouble is, I don’t know which one, and they’re on opposite sides of the spreads and money lines.

For now, all bets are off. If I change my mind, you’ll be the second to know.

Try to contain your excitement.