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Can bettors handicap 'ref bias' in the NBA Playoffs?

Guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant always seemed to come through with big plays in crunch time. And, according to a recent study published by the International Journal of the Economics of Business, they didn’t do it alone.

The study, which drew data from the 2011 NBA Playoffs, comes to the conclusion that star players generate phantom calls from officials, especially in the fourth quarter of postseason games where All-Stars are “awarded with an additional 0.32 free-throw attempts per minute”.

This news falls under the same category as “Water is wet” and “The sky is blue”, but with NBA officials coming under fire in the opening round of the playoffs, bettors have to wonder if there’s any value buying into this study or factoring how games are being officiated into their nightly basketball wagers.

NBA fans will be the first ones to tell you that the league certainly has preferences as to which teams advance in the tournament. And shamed former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who served 15 months in prison for tipping off bettors, even went as far as to claim the NBA was pressuring its officials to help the Brooklyn Nets knock off the Toronto Raptors in the opening round – setting up a blockbuster series with the Miami Heat in the conference quarterfinals.

Another first-round series that caught the eye of conspiracy theorists was Oklahoma City versus Memphis, with the NBA apparently pulling for the Thunder and stars like MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to keep ratings high into the second round. Shit hit the fan when Grizzlies star forward Zach Randolph was suspended for Game 7 against the Thunder – which Memphis lost – for a questionable push/punch the game before.

Siding with these possible cloak-and-dagger dealings isn’t a suggested handicapping practice. However, a few sharp basketball bettors have been keeping an eye on the officials this postseason and have some suggestions for how to work the whistles to your favor.

“This study isn't going to help bettors in games where one team is favored by a significant margin,” says professional handicapper Teddy Covers, who admits he factored in the refs when betting Brooklyn versus Toronto in Game 7. “But in short spread games - particularly key games as the series progresses, like Games 4, 5 and 6 - bettors should certainly be aware of potential referee bias as a part of their handicap.”

There was a bit of a difference in fouls called for the Brooklyn-Toronto series, with the Raptors being whistled for seven more fouls than the Nets (176-169) in the seven games and committing more fouls (72-67) in the final three games of the series. Toronto did, however, shoot more free throws in that final three-game span (89-85). The home team had fewer fouls than the road team in five of the seven games.

Covers Expert Sean Murphy doesn’t look into officiating when capping the night’s NBA card, but does say a lopsided amount of free throws for one team can sometimes lead referees to give the other more chances at the stripe the following game or as the series jumps to a new city.

“If we see a large discrepancy in terms of free throws in one game, I'll generally look for the other team to get the calls the next - especially if there's a shift in venue,” says Murphy. “Simple logic, but it usually works.”

The Los Angeles Clippers (31.8) lead the remaining teams in FT attempts per game in the postseason and ranked second in getting to the stripe (29.1) in the regular season. In their first-round series with the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers averaged 31.75 free-throw attempts at home but only 22.3 FTA on the road.

Fellow Covers Expert Steve Merril was watching the balance of fouls called in the Oklahoma City-Memphis series, recognizing that officials were prone to balancing out the whistles. The home/away bias wasn’t evident in this opening round set, as the home team was whistled more often (156-151) and shot fewer free throws (172-190) than the road team. And the No. 2 seeded Thunder were actually whistled much more than the No. 7 Grizzlies (161-146).

“It is probably more important to factor this officiating bias into your NBA handicapping when playing fourth-quarter lines, since free throws and fouls can account for a larger percentage of the overall points in just a 12 minute quarter of play,” says Merril.

As for how the refs performed in the opening games of Round 2, the road teams have been whistled for more fouls – only slightly (86-90) – than the home teams, with the Indiana Pacers as the only host committing more fouls than the visitor.

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