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The Defense Never Rests

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/22/2006

One thing to keep in mind this weekend as the NBA playoffs commence is the attention to defense by many teams. During the regular season, teams can coast at times when it comes to defensive intensity. Some games are blowouts, so the players will take more of an interest in running and shooting, while other times coaches will go to their bench and rest their starters. Statistically, this can skew offensive numbers slightly.

However, in the playoffs, games are expected to be closer overall as these are the Top 8 teams remaining in each conference. And many got here because they know the importance of defense. Teams are more likely to play all-out defense in the playoffs and there are fewer opportunities to ignore Big D. This can create wagering value with unders, particularly early in a series.

For instance, take a look at the Indiana Pacers of one year ago. Indiana has the reputation of a tough defensive team under demanding coach Rick Carlisle, a guy who knows how to teach defense. In last year’s opening playoff round, the Pacers played the Celtics. In Game 1, the total was 188 and the game sailed under as Boston won 102-82. In Game 2, the total dropped to 185 and went under again in an 82-79 Indiana win. For Game 3 the total dropped again to 182 and went under a third time as the Pacers won at home, holding Boston to 76 points. By Game 4, the total was 180. That’s a drop from 188 to 180 in just four games! If you like to look at playing unders in the NBA playoffs, there are often good opportunities early in a series, before oddsmakers adjust lines.

Granted, all series aren’t like this. Washington will be playing Cleveland this weekend and the Wizards haven’t played much defense all season, while Cavs play good defense at home, but not always on the road. It’s not clear whether that will be a wide-open series or if the Cavs step up defensively. However, there are several other teams battling with great defensive reputations: the Spurs, Grizzlies, Pistons, Nets and Bulls.

Perhaps the first-round series to keep the closest eye on as far as totals is the Grizzlies/Mavericks. Dallas has played much-improved defense under coach Avery Johnson, while Memphis loves to slow things down under Mike Fratello. There’s a chance Fratello will slow the games to a crawl to try and keep the games low scoring and close. While Dallas was 34-7 at home, remember that Memphis was one of the teams to win there (by 20 points in November). A few other points to keep in mind about that series: Grizzlies star Pau Gasol was inactive the final game because of a sore left foot. "I just took the day off to get my legs back and get my knees back," downplayed Gasol. And Memphis seems to be taking a tough mind set: "We ain't gonna back down from nobody," said Grizzlies point guard Bobby Jackson this week.

In the Clippers/Nuggets series, it was interesting that Corey Maggette returned for the Clippers in the regular season finale and was outstanding with 18 points, 11 boards. He is a key piece of their puzzle. LA has home court for that series. Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, teams have won 66.2% of playoff games played on their home courts. In the first round, the success rate is 64.7%, though it was only 55.8% last season. Home court and defense are keys this time of the season, and don’t be surprised if scoring drops more than expected in some series as oddsmakers scramble to adjust. After all, just one year ago the Pacers went 10-3 under the total in 2005 playoffs!

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