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NBA Conference Finals
by Jim Feist - 05/19/2009
We're down to the Final Four in the NBA Playoffs, and what an exciting three-year postseason run it has been. 2006 saw more games decided by one point in NBA playoff history. Two years ago we saw the biggest upset in a 7-game series, as the No. 8 seeded Warriors shocked the 67-win and No. 1 seeded Mavericks in six games. Last season old rivals Boston and LA hooked up in another NBA Finals.
This has been a fascinating postseason, as well, one that probably will be remembered as, "The Year of the Bounce Back." We've seen a lot of teams either out of gas or packing it in one game, only to bounce back the next game with a completely different performance. The Celtics looked out of gas after beating Chicago in Game 7, then fell flat in Game 1 (at home) in a loss to Orlando. The next game they destroyed Orlando, 112-94. After getting flattened in Game 3, they bounced back and stole Game 4 at Orlando has a dog on a last second shot.
Last week the Lakers failed to show up in an embarrassing loss at Houston in Game 4, a 99-87 loss as a favorite. The next game they bounced back big-time with a 40-point win! That happened in the first round, after their only loss at Utah, the Lakers beat the Jazz by double digits the next game.
There is often a "clash of styles," in the postseason, run-and-gun uptempo teams against defensive-oriented ones. The Western Conference Finals features two teams that have to figure out what style they want to play. Denver has been an uptempo team most of the season. In the playoffs against New Orleans they stepped up their defensive intensity, only to revert to a run-and-gun style in beating Dallas in five games..
Remember they faced each other a year ago, and it was one Denver would rather forget, getting swept. The 2008 Lakers/Nuggets series was expected to be uptempo because of the Nuggets breakneck pace behind Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. Yet, there was a lot more defense (by the Lakers) than fans and oddsmakers might have anticipated as the last three games went under the total. The Nuggets averaged 110 points per game during the regular season, then the Lakers held them to an average of 101 in their four-game sweep. Denver had the same problem the previous season, as the Spurs turned on their defensive jets and held the Nuggets to 88, 91, 89 and 78 points the last four games, all wins by San Antonio.
That's nothing new. Three years ago the Warriors/Mavericks series was expected to be uptempo under Don Nelson's breakneck style. Yet, four of the six games went under the total. Game 2 jumped over the total by only one point, while Games 1, 3, 4 and 6 went under the total by 32, 11, 8 and 12 points.
You often see more defense this time of the season. Remember that defense is the common ingredient in all sports when it comes to advancing in the postseason and winning championships. The last five years are loaded with examples. In 2004, the flashy, high profile Lakers opened as a 5-to-1 favorite over the blue-collar Pistons. The early money came in on LA as the public was enamored with the flashy team and the Pistons were eventually +700 to win the title. It was the blue-collar team, with its unselfish play and slam-dunk defense, that won the title with ease, as the Pistons whipped the Lakers in five games.
Four years ago, two unselfish, blue-collar teams met for the title as the Spurs topped the Pistons in seven games. In 2006, Pat Riley's Heat used defense and Dwyane Wade to come back from 2-0 in the NBA Finals, in 2007 the Spurs rode their magnificent defense to another title, their fourth since 1999. Last season it was the better defensive team, Boston, that topped the finesse Lakers in the Finals.
Naturally, coaches know the value of defense this time of year and you often find the better defensive teams advancing and facing each other. When the Pistons won the title five years ago they were 14-8-1 "under" the total in the postseason. When the Spurs won the title in 2005, 6 of their first 8 playoff games sailed under the total. The 2006 champion Miami Heat went 10-2 under the total their final 12 playoff games and in 2007 the under went 3-1 in the dull Spurs/Cavs Finals.
This is not uncommon when two proud defensive teams are trying to flex their muscles in a showcase of superiority. As we enter the final stretch of this NBA season, keep in mind that the last five years the "under" is 60-41-1 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Defense doesnâ€™t disappear this time of year, it often gets more intense.