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NBA Playoffs: Defense and Match-ups

   by Al McMordie - 04/29/2012

There are some big favorites in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Upsets and unders happen all the time as teams bring their best game, especially on defense as the contests mean so much. The Pacers/Magic and the Knicks/Heat put on the biggest defensive displays, with the losers getting 67 and 77 points, far below the regular season scoring averages for the Knicks and Pacers. That’s playoff basketball!

A year ago upsets littered the first week of the NBA Playoffs, 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 last year 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, and we have a slew of tough defensive teams in this year’s playoffs (Knicks, Celtics, Hawks, Lakers, Bulls).

In the East it’s the old men of Boston against the young Atlanta Hawks. It’s also a battle of two of the best defensive teams in the NBA, with the Hawks 5th in the NBA in points allowed, Celtics 3rd. Two years ago the Celtics took the last month of the season off to get healthy, then went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Is the same plan going on here?

The Celtics are 12-4-2 ATS in their last 18 games overall and the under is 21-6-1 in the Celtics last 28 games as a favorite of 5.0-10.5. Atlanta also plays great defense, 5th in points allowed (93 ppg) and 11th in FG shooting defense (44%). But they are vulnerable in the middle with Center Al Horford out (torn left pectoral), "We haven't been having a post player since Al left," Josh Smith said.

Keep in mind the Hawks are 13-3 over the total as a home favorite. And when these teams met there was a lot of defense played: On April 11 the Celtics won at home 88-86 as -2.5 favorites and it sailed under the total of 180. On March 19 Boston won at Atlanta 79-76 as +2 dog, and that also went under the total of 182 as Boston shot 39%, the Hawks 38%.

Out west the defending champion Dallas Mavericks lost rebounder Tyson Chandler to free agency, but added Delonte West (9.7 ppg) and Vince Carter (10.2 ppg), with Brendan Haywood (6.1 rpg) as a role player up front. But is that enough? And is age catching up with them? They are led by 33-year old 7-0 Dirk Nowitzki (21.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), 34-year old 6-2 Jason Terry (15 ppg) off the bench, 33-year old 6-7 Shawn Marion (10.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and 38-year old Jason Kidd (6.2 ppg, 5.5 apg). While Dallas was a great road team last season (28-13) they have a losing road record this year. The Mavericks are also 25-11-3 ATS in their last 39 games vs. a team with a winning record.

After being the top team in the West almost all season, the Thunder went 6-6 SU, 5-7 ATS the last three weeks to allow the Spurs to overtake them. They are a good bounce back team at 25-10 ATS in their last 35 games following a spread loss and 58-26-1 ATS in their last 85 games following a straight up loss. Oklahoma City went 2-1 SU/ATS against Dallas this season, 3-0 under the total.

In January Dallas won at home, 100-87 win at home as -2 chalk going under the total of 196. In February the Thunder won 95-86 at Dallas as +1 dog (under 197) and in March the Thunder won 95-91 at home over Dallas as -7 chalk (under 196).

The biggest surprise this weekend was Indiana losing at home to banged up Orlando, 81-77, shooting 34%. The Pacers Roy Hibbert blocked nine shots and collected 13 rebounds, but Indiana missed nine of their 22 foul shots. Meanwhile, Orlando was already without Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Earl Clark played hurt in Game 1. It’s clear the Magic are not going to run the court with anybody this postseason, but will slow the pace to a crawl. The under is 15-5-1 in the Magic’s last 21 Conference Quarterfinals games and when these teams meet they are 12-4 under the total in Indiana. Defense also helps team survive on the road in the playoffs, which is important when heading into a hostile arena. It’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.

Miami squashed the Knicks in Game 1, 100-67, another playoff game sailing under the total. That was reminiscent of a year ago when Miami went up three games to none by holding the 76ers to 89, 73 and 94 points. That shouldn’t surprise, either, as Miami has been one of the top defensive teams in the league the last two seasons.

Even run-and-gun Oklahoma City held defending champion Dallas to 43.6% shooting in Game 1, holding Dirk Nowitzki to 8 of 18 shooting. 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 Serge Ibaka, excellent rebounders and shot blockers. 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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