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NBA Playoffs: Defense and Match-Ups

   by Al McMordie - 04/24/2011

Unders and upsets have been the dominant theme of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The upsets have been shocking, with the Lakers and Spurs both falling in Game 1, and the Knicks nearly going up 2-0 on the Celtics in two thrillers, though New York easily covered both games. While the upsets and underdogs overachieving have been the big surprise, games going under the total should not surprise anyone.

Defense rules in the postseason, in all sports, and that’s been the case once again, with games going under the total by roughly a two-to-one clip. The first two games of the Heat/76ers series went under the total, with the total moving from 190 in Game 1 all the way down to 185 for Game 3. That’s not uncommon, either, as teams other than the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets generally play fierce defense for the full 48.

Miami went up three games to none by holding the 76ers to 89, 73 and 94 points. That shouldn’t surprise, either, as Miami was one of the top defensive teams in the league all season, even early in the year when they were struggling during a 9-8 start.

It’s about defensive intensity and matchups and Miami is simply a bigger, more talented team than Philadelphia. Half of Miami’s rebounds in the third quarter came of Game 3 were on the offensive end, and the Heat out-rebounded the Sixers 50-34 for the game, to go along with a 16-point advantage in the paint. The Heat had 20 offensive rebounds, including eight from center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

And it starts with LeBron James, who is a matchup-made-in-hell for any opponent. James finished with 24 points (8-of-15 shooting) to go along with 15 rebounds and six assists. His rebounding total was a season high. James had 14 rebounds in Game 1, while center Chris Bosh had 19 points, shooting 8 of 19 from the field but missed out on his third consecutive double-double.

Defense also helps team survive on the road in the playoffs, which is important when heading into a hostile arena. Overall, the Heat shot a higher percentage on the road (48.3 to 47.9) this season, and the difference was even greater on three-pointers (38.4 away, 35.5 at home). James, Wade and Mike Miller shot threes much better away. Miller was 24 for 75 at home (32 percent), compared with 19 for 43 away (44.2 percent). The Heat has gone 8-1 on the road since March 5, with the only loss at Cleveland. The 76ers had won 25 of their past 35 at home until Miami beat them in Game 3.

Another team with matchup and defensive problems has been the New York Knicks. The Knicks were 25th in the NBA in team defense this season and allowed 47% shooting by opponents, one of the worst marks in the league. They seemed to catch the Celtics napping in the first two games, but Boston used superior defense and matchup advantages to pummel the Knicks in the all-important Game 3. One thing that stood out was how the Celtics kept drilling three-pointers. That was because no Knicks were even in the vicinity of the three-point shooter, particularly Ray Allen.

That’s all about effort. Getting a hand in someone’s face who is shooting a three-pointer is important, even if you don’t block the shot. But the Knicks were nowhere near Allen or Paul Pierce and the duo kept drilling open threes, which again shows how important it is to show defense this time of the season. They also have no one defensively to throw at Rajon Rondo, which is why he had a Celtics playoff record 20 assists. Rondo had struggled for much of the last two months, but torched a Knicks team that doesn’t give a hoot about playing defense. Which means you won’t see Rondo rack up 20 assists again in the playoffs with the Heat, Bulls and possibly the Lakers down the road if they advance.
A year ago, Miami looked like it might pull the upset in Game 1, but the Boston defense decided to show up in an impressive 85-76 Celtic win. Miami struck for 29 first quarter points and led by 14 in the second half. However, the Celtics clamped down on their defense and allowed 15, 22 and 10 points in each of the final three quarters. Miami finished with 22 turnovers that resulted in 38 Boston points and shot 39%.

There’s no question what fueled the remarkable Portland comeback in Game 4 against the Mavericks: Defense. Dallas shot .408% for the game and the Blazers won, trailing by 22 at one point, despite shooting just 42% for the game. The Blazers missed their first 15 shots from the floor in the third quarter!

And what stands out about the Oklahoma City Thunder/Denver Nuggets series? Defense! Game 1 went over the total, but that was a little misleading. Denver scored 60 points in the first half, then only 42 in the second half as the Thunder played excellent defense. While Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant get all the attention as flashy offensive players, remember that the Thunder have a pair of standout defensive players in Kendrick Perkins and Sere Ibaka, excellent rebounders and shot blockers. The second half of Game 1 sailed under the total, along with Games 2 and 3.

Oklahoma won Game 3 at Denver despite shooting 36% (Denver shot 37%). Ibaka led the league with 198 blocks during the regular season and had a career-high 16 rebounds. All that focus the last month on playoff seeding doesn't mean as much as expected, especially if the match-up on the court isn't favorable. Now what comes into play are adjustments, coaching moves, and whether a team with an early advantage can go for the knockout punch - or let the edge slip away. Good luck as always, Al McMordie.


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