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NBA Playoffs: Oddsmakers, Defense and Totals.

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/20/2005

This will be an interesting postseason for the NBA because of the clash of styles that are expected. The old adage is that defense wins championships, which is usually the case, but there are some impressive, high-flying teams that hope to make a run at the Finals, such as the Suns, Mavericks and Sonics. None of those teams stand out defensively, of course, preferring to bury opponents under an avalanche of fast-break layups and three-pointers. It will be interesting when those teams clash with traditional, physical, hard-nosed defensive-oriented clubs, like the Spurs and Pistons.

This also brings into play how oddsmakers approach totals. Generally what they look at is season averages, both home and away, combined with the regular season meetings against each other. This is especially important when you have a clash of varying styles, such as we may see soon if the Spurs take on the Suns. That’s when you have to ask the question: Which style will dictate play? Some teams, such as Denver, San Antonio, New Jersey and Memphis, have the depth and defense to play whatever style an opponent wants, while teams like Phoenix and Dallas are much more comfortable in a finesse, run-and-gun game.

Let's look at the season series between the Suns and Spurs to see if we can gauge whether to expect a high scoring game the way the Suns prefer, or a defensive duel that San Antonio plays so well. In the first meeting, the Spurs won at home 115-94 in a game that went over the total of 198. The next meeting, at Phoenix, the Spurs won again, 128-123, in a game that flew over the total of 196. Oddsmakers finally adjusted in the third meeting, boosting the total to 207. They made a much better total as the Suns won 107-101, but the Spurs covered, in a game jumping over the total by a point.

What stands out about those three regular season meetings is that the Spurs played Phoenix's run-and-gun game, as all three sailed over the total. What's also noticeable is that San Antonio went 2-1 straight up and 3-0 against the number, even winning at Phoenix. Those are numbers to keep in mind if the two meet again soon in the playoffs. And don’t be surprised if the Game 1 total is somewhere in the low 200s, than in the 196 range.

In addition, styles will usually follow that team in the postseason. For example, the Pistons won the title last season with a bone-crushing defense. But this is nothing new, as Detroit is 29-19-2 under the total in the playoffs the last three seasons. And the Spurs are 20-13-1 under the total the last two seasons. So while teams often carry reputations into the playoffs, don't think that totals might be set too low on a San Antonio game simply because their reputation is as a low scoring, defensive team. Finally, don't be surprised if defense gets tougher with more low scoring games the longer the playoffs extend. Since 2001, the under is a combined 37-27 in the Conference Championships and NBA Finals. This is not surprising, either, as the better defensive teams historically have advanced in the playoffs, and the games get tighter with an emphasis on 'D' the closer a club gets to the NBA championship.

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