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Defense and Totals in the NBA Playoffs

   by Jim Feist - 04/24/2012

The NBA playoffs get rolling this week, which is a good time to revisit an old sports adage: Defense wins championships. Some teams are already in that playoff mode while fighting for postioning, with the Celtics on a recent 9-3 run under the total, the Heat on a 7-3 run under, and even the Knicks with Tyson Chandler picking up the slack from injured players Amare Stoudamire and Jeremy Lin on a recent 11-5 run under.
Look at some recent Super Bowl winners. The Patriots lost twice to the Giants with the New York defense stepping up and taking charger, holding the Pats explosive, no-huddle attack to 14 and 17 points. You might not remember, but QB Peyton Manning didn't have a stellar postseason six years ago when he won his only Super Bowl, 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.
Two years ago the Steelers and Packers had outstanding defenses, ranked No. 2 and No. 5 in the league, and met up in the Super Bowl. Last year in the NBA Finals, two of the best defensive teams in the league met as the Mavericks upset the Heat in six games. Two years ago Lakers and Celtics dueled in a defensive series and in 2009 the Lakers held a high scoring Orlando team to 75, 96 (in overtime), 91 and 86 points in four wins.
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.
Coaches are a big part of this. Charlotte made the playoff this season largely because Coach Larry Brown demanded aggressive defense on every possession as the Bobcats led the league in points allowed. Remember that Brown was coach of the 2004 champion Pistons, who went 14-8-1 "under" the total in the playoffs. 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. They were coached by Pat Riley, who understood how important defense and rebounding are. 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.
Five 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 eight seasons, the "under" is 85-68 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Remember that in four of five recent seasons the offensive-minded Suns were knocked out by the Spurs and Mavericks. Chalk up another triumph of defense over offense!

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