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NBA Stretch Run: Lethargic Defense

   by Jim Feist - 03/24/2009

There are three more weeks to go in the NBA regular season. This means there are professional athletes who will be going on vacation soon, while other players who will be working hard, huffing and puffing 40 minutes per game, some right on through until May and even June.
Now let me ask you -- Will the majority of the players on the Sonics, Clippers, Wizards, Kings and Grizzlies be working as hard the next few weeks as those teams on the NBA playoff bubble, like the Bucks, Bobcats, Suns and Bulls? Good coaches can get their players motivated, even on a losing team this time of the season.
However, the fact is good coaches are as hard to find as self-motivated athletes. This is the time of year when some disappointed teams play out the schedule and think less about preparing for their next opponent and think more about golf and early spring/summer family vacations. This is understandable, as losing is no fun. Teams hit the 70-game mark this week, and many players on losing teams realize they have no shot at the postseason, which means the year was a failure.
Some fans and local newspapers are focused more on where their team will end up in the draft, rather than show an interest in the last few weeks of the season. Teams like the Clippers, Raptors and Warriors were hoping to have better campaigns. The Clippers were hoping for big results from Marcus Camby and Baron Davis, but injuries have devastated a potentially improved team. "This has been the worst year of my NBA career, and the least amount of fun I've ever had," said Davis last week.
It's difficult for anyone to give 100% when they are unhappy. Since late January the Clippers have been on a 7-19 SU, 8-18 ATS run. This is nothing new. Last season at this time the Clippers were also playing lethargic basketball, on a 2-12 SU, 3-11 ATS run. Like now, the Clippers had more players resting from injuries off the court than on.
A year ago the Miami Heat had won the NBA title less than two years ago earlier and certainly looked formidable with star guard Dwyane Wade entering his prime, teamed with veteran big men Shaq and Alonzo Mourning. No one envisioned a train wreck season with the worst record in the NBA while winning 18% of their games. They were a go-against all season, starting 10-23 ATS at home and 4-22 SU, 7-18 ATS in the conference. Motivating athletes as the ship is sinking is no easy task.
Lethargic play on bad teams is first noticeable at the defensive end. Athletes that have nothing to play for are more inclined to pad their own stats on the offensive end, but expend less energy on defense. Part of it is psychological, where a player can point to the stat sheet after the season and say, "We didn't lose because of me. I did my part with 18 points per game." The other part is simply that defense requires a lot of hustle and little recognition, and unmotivated teams have less energy at practice or in game conditions to bring their 'A' game on 'D'.
That can be reflected with totals, as well. The last two weeks the Golden State Warriors went five straight games over the total, even though oddsmakers kept juicing their totals up from 207 to 244! Speaking of injuries and no defense, how about the Washington Wizards?
With Caron Butler currently battling injuries, the Wizards have been playing without four projected opening-day starters: Butler, Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, who is out for the season. They recently went on a 5-2 run over the total.
I recall last season the Milwaukee Bucks were in a similar situation, losing six in a row, part of a 5-14 SU, 9-10 ATS run, including 16-3 over the total. Contrast those struggling teams with the Utah Jazz, a club on a terrific run of late. Why? Motivation. Utah is trying to hold on in a brutally competitive Western Conference playoff race, just one game ahead of eighth-place Dallas and only three back of second-place San Antonio!
It's about goals, interest and competitive fire, and some teams lack all three. A few years ago, Cleveland seemed more interested in setting itself up to get LeBron James in the draft than playing quality basketball, starting 24-42-1 against the spread. The Cavs went 2-13-1 ATS down the stretch. One year the Hawks completely packed it in, going 6-24 SU/ATS to end the season! You don't always have to back the good teams to win and cover, as there are plenty of go-against spots and "over" teams this time of year.

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