By the time the Los Angeles Lakers pushed their Game 4 lead to nine points with just under 40 seconds remaining, the drama surrounding the outcome of the game itself dissipated. The drama for the gambling community, however, had just begun.
The line for Game 4 of the NBA Finals closed with the Lakers as 7.5 favorites, according to William Hill Sportsbook. The Lakers are an extremely public team and were the favorites, so naturally, 60 percent of tickets and total money on the spread picked them as the winners. For most of the night, those tickets looked like clear losses. The two sides traded leads for most of the game, and until the final minutes, the Lakers never once led by the eight points necessary to win the bet. And then? Chaos.
Let’s pick things up with 3:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. Tyler Herro has just made a free throw to cut the lead to two. Finals history suggests that this game will go down to the wire, and their performance this postseason favors the Heat strongly. In 45 NBA-defined clutch minutes in the playoffs, the Heat had outscored their opponents by 41 points. Bettors could be forgiven for tearing their tickets in half.
And then, the legend of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was written. A difficult 3-pointer followed by a driving layup pushed the lead up to seven. Caldwell-Pope scored 15 on the night and was instrumental in the victory, and for Lakers bettors, he was the harbinger of hope. A Jae Crowder 3 cut the lead back down to four, but a layup from Rajon Rondo got it back up to six before Anthony Davis hit a 3-pointer with 39.5 seconds left to give the Lakers their first cover-worthy lead of the night. Their backers suddenly found themselves at under 40 seconds away from an improbable victory.
That victory was taken away eight seconds later, as Jimmy Butler threw down a dunk with 31.5 seconds remaining. The Lakers would have had a chance to take the cover back, but threw their inbounds pass out of bounds. Davis blocks Butler. Caldwell-Pope gets the rebound. The Lakers have the ball and a seven-point lead with under 24 seconds remaining. Time to run out the clock.
“Not so fast!” says Duncan Robinson, the patron saint of Lakers bettors in this series. He fouls LeBron James with just over 10 seconds left. The free throws are meaningless to the casual fan. They are the difference between a win and a loss for the gambling community. James calmly sinks both. Lakers by nine. Only 10.9 seconds left on the clock. Surely, this is where the story ends.
If you believed that, you’ve clearly never been subjected to a backdoor cover. Butler dribbles down the floor and hands the ball off to Herro, who throws up a casual 3-pointer at the buzzer. Nothing drives bettors crazier. Herro had nothing to gain in taking the shot. But he made it, and in the process, made the sportsbooks a whole lot richer. Final score? Lakers by six, 102-96.
This was the first game of the Finals to feature a losing team covering the spread. It was not, however, the first Finals game to swing on a meaningless 3-pointer at the end of the game. In fact, it took two of them to generate a miracle win for gamblers in Game 3. The game’s over/under was set at 218.5 total points. With 32.5 seconds left, the Heat led by 10 with the total stuck at 213. Robinson threw up an unnecessary 3-pointer and made it. That pushed the total up to 216. Eight seconds later, Kyle Kuzma did the same. Final score? 114-105 Heat. The over covered in garbage time.
It just goes to show that no matter how lopsided a game might be, Vegas can always provide some late-game drama. Tuesday may have given the Lakers a 3-1 lead in the series, but the sports books were the real winners.