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NBA Conference Finals: Experience and Defense

   by Ben Burns - 05/20/2008

Everyone’s been talking about the remarkable home court edge in the NBA playoffs, but overlooked is the fact that the deeper we get into the postseason, the more important defense and experience become. A quick refresher course: Here’s a list of the top six teams in field goal shooting defense during the regular season: 1) Celtics, 2) Rockets, 3) Pistons, 4) Mavericks, 5) Spurs, 6) Lakers.

Anything stand out? There are only four remaining teams in the NBA playoffs and all four are in that short list defensively. For those of you shocked that the New Orleans Hornets got upset at home in Game 7 by the Spurs, note that the Hornets are 16h in team defense allowing 46% shooting by opponents. All those flashy offense numbers by David West, dazzling passes by Chris Paul and long range shots from Peja Stojakovic were no match for the Spurs superior defense in Game 7.

San Antonio held New Orleans to 40% shooting and had a +9 rebounding edge. The Spurs took 28 three pointers and hit 12 in the final game, a sizzling 43%. New Orleans, at home, hit only 23% of its three pointers (4-of-17).

Who were the top 3 teams in points allowed? The Celtics, Pistons and Spurs, three teams still alive for a title. The Spurs won Game 7 despite shooting 39.5 percent from the field. Offensive deficiencies can be covered over with superior defense, and the Spurs are a great example. The triumph was the first-ever for the Spurs on the road in a Game 7. It also punctuated their first successful comeback from trailing 2-0 in a playoff series.

“We just played a very good defensive game, and that’s what put us over,â€쳌 said San Antonio coach Greg Popovich after Game 7. The Spurs held New Orleans to fewer than 100 points at home for the first time in the series.

The Pistons have been strong defensively the last two months and are on a 17-8-1 run under the total. The slow-down Celtics are on a 6-2 under run. San Antonio is on a 6-3 under run and is 53-37 under for the season. Even the uptempo Lakers are on a 6-3 under run, playing great defense against offensive powers Denver and Utah.

Another factor that is also notable is experience. The Hornets and Spurs split all 6 home games, then the Hornets were favored in Game 7 at home. But in a game featuring a young team against a veteran defending champion, experience jumped out to a 17-point lead and held on for the upset win. Did you see any panic in the young Hornets? This was all new to them.

That’s not the case with the Spurs, who have been through many big games and pressure situations. They certainly looked it, even when the Hrnets cut it to 3 in the final minute. “We just kept fighting,â€쳌 said Tony Parker. “We never doubted ourselves. We never felt like we were in a panic.â€쳌 That’s another way of saying the team was calm and confident.

One San Antonio player said of the Hornets, “The only guy over there who has a ring is Jannero Pargo, and he was trying to do it all. You can’t do that.â€쳌

Now one other factor may come into play: Rest. The Pistons and Lakers have had plenty of time to rest after finishing off their last series, while the Celtics and Spurs had to play grueling 7-game series. We will see if the rest helps, hurts, or doesn’t make a difference. One thing to keep an eye on is the Spurs in the third quarter: They were terrible in the third quarter on the road of their series with New Orleans. The Hornets outscored the Spurs by a stunning 94-36 in the first three San Antonio road games in the third quarter, and 108-56 in all four games.

Also, the Spurs intended to fly from New Orleans to Los Angeles, but they ended up spending the night on their plane because of mechanical problems. The Spurs arrived in Los Angeles Tuesday morning but didn't practice. Experience, defense and rest are going to be worth watching closely as these series get rolling.

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