Joker & The Blaze
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It pays dividends to burn the midnight oil - yes, the one series I continue to be most interested in from a betting perspective takes place (for the most part) from 11PM to 2AM Eastern Standard Time each night.
The 4 vs. 5 matchup out West, aka the Nuggets vs. the Blazers, aka Joker vs. Dame.
If thou can preserve the gravity of the clock, there is some money to be made methinks.
Breaking Down Nikola Jokic's Assist Prop:
In 5 games this season vs. the Portland Trail Blazers, Nikola Jokic has only posted 18 total assists. If we round that up to 20 (given that Jokic missed the 2nd half in the regular season finale against Portland), then that is still only 4.0 assists per game, less than half of his 2020-21 regular season average.
And the reason for this pattern I believe has everything to do with the way the Blazers play him: Portland head coach Terry Stotts & Co are confident in their nimble center Jusuf Nurkic (and former Jokic teammate) on how he can handle the Joker 1-on-1, with the other 4 Trail Blazers defenders sticking to their man.
So have Stotts and the Blazers discovered a panacea defense that stymies the greatest 7-foot assist man in NBA history? (Probably the greatest over 6’9, Bird). Yes and no. Yes, Stotts has a specific strategy that he believes optimizes his team’s chance of beating Denver - and limiting Jokic’s passing is a key part of it.
This strategy might not be one that other teams could or should attempt to adopt against Jokic either.
While he has not had the same assist opportunities against Portland this year, Jokic has indeed been able to score more, posting 32 PPG over 5 matchups vs. the Blazers this season. I'll use an Eastern Conference analogy to break down the implications of how and why we should take advantage of Stott's scheme.
The Milwaukee Bucks' defensive strategy - neither perfect nor inherently flawed.
Is Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer the worst defensive coach in the NBA? No, of course not. His team is in the top 10 in defense every season right? But why might one question Budenholzer’s defense here?
Year after year, the Bucks are either the league’s worst or 2nd worst team at guarding 3-pointers. This year, in fact, they rank in the bottom two of both made 3-pointers allowed and opponent 3-point accuracy.
Isn’t the NBA all about threes now too? Wouldn’t this be a tragic flaw? Wasn’t it the vulnerability that the Miami Heat exploited last year? Well, if you believed that the Bucks' defensive style of allowing 3s and protecting the paint was a tragic weakness before game 1 – after the Heat knocked down 20 of 50 threes, you might say that you had more evidence on your side. But the Heat lost Game 1, and they lose Game 2.
In Game 2, the open threes the Bucks allowed in favor of paint protection simply were not falling. And when they tried to adjust, Jimmy Butler – a player who likes to play closer to the hoop when looking for points – is now 8-for-32 shooting in the series, seemingly thwarted by that packed Milwaukee paint.
So let's get back to Mr. Jokic's aforementioned assist prop.
Yes, the Blazers have figured out a defensive strategy that has limited Denver C, Nikola Jokic’s assist totals, but in no way is it clear that this strategy is some sort of Joker Kryptonite (reminder: the series is now 1-1).
Moreover, corresponding to Jokic’s depressed assist production, his scoring has been off the charts.
Faced 1-1 vs. the guy the Nuggets choose to ship out of Denver in favor of the Serbian phenomenon, Jokic has dropped 160 points in 5 games vs. Nurkic and Portland this year. He is averaging 36 PPG in this series.
[See Footnote 1 below]
Case in point - as overall gamblers and sports bettors, we do not care if the strategy works or not. We only care if this strategy will be repeated, so that we can profit from our logical predictions and prop markets.
And strong evidence suggests to me that this strategy will be repeated.
Namely, the history of the Trail Blazers vs. Jokic. In 9 career playoff games – Jokic has averaged 6.7 Assists Per Game. That is right around where it was priced for Game 2: Over 6.5 (-150), Under 6.5 (+118).
But averages can be deceiving - that average included a 4-OT thriller in '19 when Jokic played 65 minutes.
If we take Jokic’s Assist Per Minute vs. Portland in his nine career playoff games (0.16) - then multiplied by his median MP in those games, we get 6.2 Assists - that is 0.5 assists lower than his simple assist per game statistic vs. Portland. And also 0.5 assists lower than the market was for this prop in Game 2.
If we add this year’s regular season games in the mix, we get only 5.7 assists expected.
If the market does not drastically adjust Jokic’s assist prop downward for Game 3, we are squarely in profitable territory here - and I do believe the market for this prop will tick down some, maybe to around 6.5 flat, with high probabilities we are still getting better juice on the preferred side of the under.
My math (so far) puts the proper number around 6.2 to 5.7, but I believe it should actually be even lower than that due to a significant downward trend line - remember, the Blazers won that last series in 2019 despite losing Games 1, 4 & 5. They simply figured something out that year, and if we limit our universe of Jokic games to only Games 6 & 7 of those 2019 Playoffs + the 3 Regular Season games this year + the first two games of this current Portland/Denver round one playoff series, Jokic is only averaging 4.3 APG.
Moreover, if we enhance Jokic's assist stat (take his assists per minute * his median minutes played in those games), then we should expect the Joker's true O/U to be set even lower, all the way down at 3.7.
Now there are a few reasons why I believe we should adjust our expected O/U higher than 3.7, despite my math saying that is the right number, but regardless of these reasons, clear value still lies in betting the under on this prop. But let's push back for a second or two: for one, Stotts' crew just got blown out using this style. Nurkic also fouled out early in the 4th quarter of Game 2 after trying to guard the Joker all game.
Jokic is also not a static entity. We must consider the possibility that the Joker has become such a polished scorer that Stotts will now choose to amend or even abandon his prior defensive strategy against him.
However, I do not expect Stotts to make such a radical adjustment. Sure, it may have a cooling effect on Nurkic (as well as the team) if Nurkic is told that Jokic is now simply too good for him to guard 1 on 1.
Besides, the Blazers have no reason to overreact here anyways. After all, they are still -170 favorites to win the series after earning a road split in the first two games and now holding home court advantage.
Footnote 1: A corollary prop would be Jokic's Point Total, looking toward the over. I seldom play overs though, always fearful of a blowout drastically curtailing a player’s minutes. This is especially possible in a yo-yo series like this one seems to be, and similar to how these teams played it out back in 2019.