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Defense and Totals in the NBA Playoffs

   by Jim Feist - 04/21/2009



The NBA playoffs started over the weekend, which is a good time to revisit an old sports adage: Defense wins championships. Look at all the recent Super Bowl winners. You might not realize this, but Colts QB Peyton Manning didn't have a stellar postseason three years ago, with 3 TDs and 7 INTs. The real story for the Colts' run to the title was their improved defense, especially against the run, that allowed 14 ppg to opposing offenses in the postseason. Little brother Eli followed up with a title the next year, but it was clearly the Giants' defense that led the way, shutting down the top-ranked Patriots' offense.
Who won the Super Bowl in January? The Steelers, with the No. 1 ranked defense. Coincidence? Hardly. Back in 2003, the No. 1 defense of Tampa Bay smacked the No. 1 offense of the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Last year in the NBA Finals, who won the title, the flashy Laker offense, or the blue-collar, physical Celtic defense? The Spurs have won four NBA titles since 1999 with defense the backbone of their run.
Michael Jordan may have been best known for his offense, but it was the team's defense from 1996-98 that netted the Chicago Bulls three straight titles. The same was true for the Lakers during their recent run. Let's look at Jordan's Bulls. When Jordan won his last championship in 1998, the Bulls were a great defensive team and notice that Chicago went 13-6-1 in games "under" the total during the 1998 playoffs. In 2003, the Spurs went 15-8-1 "under" the total on their way to winning the title.
The 2004 champion Pistons went 14-8-1 "under" the total. Former Pistons' coach Larry Brown was instrumental in teaching and motivating the Pistons defensively. They were not always pretty offensively, losing 82-64 and 94-79 in Games 3 and 4 against the Nets one season, and they even lost 83-68 to the Pacers in a playoff game -- at home! They scored just 78 points in Game 1 against the Nets, but still won by 22 points, 78-56! Detroit went on to win the 2004 NBA title, stunning the Lakers as a 7-to-1 series dog. Winning ugly is secondary to winning, of course.
What led the Miami Heat to the NBA title in 2006? Dwyane Wade AND defense! The Heat went 10-2 under the total their final 12 playoff games, which concluded with their four-game winning streak over Dallas in the Finals. In the Eastern Conference championship series win over Detroit, all six games went under the total. In 2004, there were 37 unders and 27 overs in the NBA playoffs and in 2006 the under was 14-4 from the Conference Finals to the NBA Finals.
Two years ago in the Finals, the Spurs swept by holding the Cavaliers to 76, 92, 72 and 82 points. Three of the four games went under the total. The Cavaliers averaged 80 ppg in the Finals, 16 points below their regular season average. One thing that happens is that strong defensive teams play as hard as they can defensively during the regular season a lot of the time, but not always. Sometimes games are blowouts and teams will coast on defense or have fun trying to score in the fourth quarter, rather than work hard playing defense (which isn't noticed as much by the fans as is a flashy offensive play). This is human nature, as it's an 82-game regular season, so it's difficult and tiring to play all out on defense for six months.
Once the playoffs roll around, however, it's a different story, as there are fewer one-sided games and opportunities to coast. Since the postseason is so short and every game means something, it's more likely teams will go all out on defense. In fact, defense has a tendency to get better as the playoffs go along because the games mean more the closer you approach the Finals. The last five seasons, the "under" is 57-44 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.
These NBA playoffs are going to be interesting for several reasons. There could be interesting contrast of styles in the West with run-and-gun fast break teams (Jazz, Nuggets, Lakers, Mavericks) squaring off against monster-defensive teams like the Rockets and Spurs. Remember that the previous four seasons the offensive-minded Suns were knocked out by the Spurs and Mavericks. Last year San Antonio stunned them in five games and this year they didn't even make the playoffs. Chalk up another triumph of defense over offense -- a trend the Cavaliers hope continues (they rank No. 1 in points allowed).

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