If you’re a follower of the NBA or NHL, especially betting on these leagues, chances are you’ve come across the zig-zag theory before. This betting strategy is typically applied to basketball and hockey because they both employ a similar playoff format.

The basic idea is that the team coming off a loss is more likely to cover the spread in the next game. Not only are they more motivated after losing, sportsbooks also adjust the odds in their favor for the next game.

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The term “zig-zag” also has to do with teams flying back and forth across the country to play each other. Paying attention to teams zig-zagging across the country, and how that affects their in-game performance, can result in more money in your wallet.

In this guide to zig-zag betting we’ll cover exactly how the system works, the different factors to pay attention to and how to use it to bet on NBA basketball and NHL hockey specifically.

We’ll also explore how historical sports data can shed some light on what makes the zig-zag system so powerful and finally we’ll cover a few reasons you should use the zig-zag theory in moderation, especially as a beginner.

How Does Zig-Zag Theory Work

In a nutshell, the zig-zag theory suggests that when a team loses a game, you should bet on them to cover the spread in the game directly after. Banking on a team bouncing back from a loss is an important part of the theory, but it aims to go deeper than that. It also takes into account which team is home and which is away and the travel necessary during the playoffs.

The zig-zag theory is mostly applied to betting on the NBA and NHL because both leagues have the same playoff format. Other leagues such as the NFL and Premier League use one-game playoffs, whereas the MLB goes with a 2-3-2 format.

Players in the NBA and NHL are forced to travel more with the longer 2-2-1-1-1 format for the playoffs. With the amount of travel required for playoff teams in these leagues, the zig-zag theory is especially relevant.

Home Advantage in Zig Zag Theory

At first glance, you might be wondering how the home advantage factors into zig-zag betting theory. Is it simply the home team having the advantage by being on the home court?

The zig-zag theory aims to go deeper than that and it boils down to a mix between home-court advantage and momentum in the series. There are different ways of applying this theory depending on how a certain team is doing in a series matchup.

Let’s look at some common scenarios to see how you can use the zig-zag theory to help choose the winning team.

Factors to Look For When Betting Zig-Zag Theory

Keep an eye out for these special circumstances and you might discover a profitable spot to use the zig-zag theory:

Home Team Goes Up 1-0

This is a scenario that happens approximately 53% of the time in the NBA and NHL combined. Statistics in the NBA show that if the home team wins Game 1, they have a 65% chance of winning the series.

In the NHL, those odds shoot up all the way to 76%, with the most likely outcome there being that the home team wins the series in six games.

If the home team goes up 1-0 it’s a great opportunity to bet on the losing team in the next game.

Home Team Goes Up 2-0

Betting the underdog on this third game is one of the most common ways that bettors play the zig-zag theory. The underlying strategy is that after the lower-seeded team loses the first two games on the road, they will play their hearts out in Game 3, on home ice, when the series is still within reach.

Between the NBA and the NHL, the lower-seeded team ends up winning nearly 60% of the time when they go back home after losing the first two games. In a world where many of the odds are near 50%, placing a bet knowing that the historical odds are near 60% is a huge advantage.

Home Team Loses First Game

Of course, the home team doesn’t always win their opening game at home. When the lower-seeded team is able to win that first game, placing bets on the higher-seeded team to bounce back in Game 2 is usually a shrewd move.

While momentum is a funny and sometimes unpredictable thing, odds are that the home team plays a better game on home ice in Game 2. Rough odds suggest that higher-seeded teams in the NHL and NBA teams win 75% of the time in Game 2 when they’re coming off of a loss.

Reasons to Use Zig-Zag Theory Cautiously

While there are historical statistics and probabilities supporting the zig-zag theory, there are also good reasons to think twice before placing all your bets based on the above information.

Remember that the zig-zag theory is a guideline and a resource for placing bets, but it is not the be-all or end-all. Here are some other things to consider before you rely solely on the zig-zag theory for all your playoff bets.

The Matchup

One thing to check before applying the zig-zag theory is the matchup between the two teams. Check the past history of the two teams facing each other and decide if that plays a factor in your bets.

The history between the two teams, and whether it’s skewed in a certain direction, could be enough to make the zig-zag betting pattern unappealing. One example is the round two matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs last season.

Betting on the Golden Knights was an anomaly on its own, but the Sharks were still favored heading into the matchup. Despite them being favored, in the regular season, the Golden Knights actually won three of the four matchups against the Sharks.

That regular season success carried over to the playoffs, where Vegas overcame San Jose and won the series in six games.

Split Stats

Whether you’re a fan of the NBA or the NHL, if you like digging into the statistics behind teams and players you’ve likely heard of sports database sites like Basketball Reference and Hockey Reference.

These are a great resource for checking out split stats, and these are something else to consider when placing your playoff bets.

Splits stats is a broad term, but it essentially measures how certain players and team perform in specific situations. How does James Harden perform against the Western Conference compared to the Eastern Conference? How does he match up against a specific team or division?

Take Harden’s performance versus the Golden State Warriors in the regular season and playoffs as an example. Although Harden only faced the Warriors twice during the regular season, his 21 points per game was the worst total he posted against any team he faced. Even though Harden and the Houston Rockets pushed the Warriors to seven games, it was Golden State who wound up on top.


Google can save your life on this one if you haven’t been paying attention.

This is something you MUST look into before placing your bets. If you aren’t fully immersed in the sport you’re betting on or haven’t been paying close attention, a quick Google search of a team’s injury report can save you lots of money if you do it before making a bet.

In sports, injuries happen. That’s especially true in a physical league like the NHL. Make sure you’re looking in the injury reports for both teams to see if it’s significant to your bets.


Just like looking up injuries, it’s easy enough to do a quick Google search to see if the team you’re looking to bet on is hampered by any suspensions.

This is neither as common or important as checking the injury report, but it’s worth making it a habit to check both before placing your bets on the playoffs. This is especially true for placing bets on the NHL playoffs, where suspensions occur more frequently than they do in the NBA.

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