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NBA Playoffs Preview.

Defense Takes Center Court!

“Defense wins championships.” That’s the old sports adage, of course, but is there still truth in it? Well, who just won the Super Bowl? The Steelers, the superior defensive team that held the Seahawks to 10 points. Who met in the NBA Finals a year ago? The Spurs and Pistons. They were 1-2 in the NBA in points allowed and in the Top 5 in defensive shooting percentage. If you watched them play, they were defensive monsters, attacking the boards as if their lives depended on getting the basketball.

This is nothing new. Defense in all sports is essential. Pitching in baseball, smashmouth defense in pro and college football, and tough defense in basketball are all tied into winning. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in October with improved pitching depth and defense. One of the most disappointing teams in the NBA this season was the Sonics, and their most obvious weakness was low post defense, as opponents shredded Seattle for high percentage shots all season. Smart sports bettors had a field day as 22 of the Sonics first 27 home games went “over” the total.

San Antonio still plays great defense for Coach Gregg Popovich and notice 19 of their first 26 home games this season went “under” the total. Popovich knows how important defense is, as they’ve taken home the NBA title in 3 of the last 7 years. Airtight defense is again the main reason the Spurs are back in the playoffs, hoping to win their first back-to-back title.

For the playoffs, keep in mind that oddsmakers set betting numbers based on regular season stats, but team defense often gets raised up a few notches in the postseason. Often you can find totals for Game 1 of a series drift downward the rest of the series as defense and low scoring surface. The Pacers opened the playoffs a year ago against the Celtics. This was a contrast in styles as Indiana was very much a defensive-oriented team under coach Rick Carlisle, while the Celtics cared little for defense and preferred to run the court. The total for Game 1 was 188, but slowly crept down the whole series until reaching 182 in Game 7. There can sometimes be value in looking at the “under” in a Game 1.

Incidentally, in that series, which style won: Boston’s run-oriented offense or the Pacers’ tough defense? Six of the seven games went under the total, with the Pacers prevailing, winning the seventh game 97-70 – a game that sailed under the total by 15 points! The Pacers then went 4-2 under the total in their 6-game series loss to the Pistons, meaning Indiana was 10-3 under the total in the 2005 playoffs.

Notice that when the Pistons and Pacers met in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, the total for Game 1 opened 163, but by Games 5 and 6 it had dropped to 159. Five of those six games sailed “under” the total. Pat Riley is back in the playoffs again for the Miami Heat, after taking over early in the season for Stan Van Gundy. Riley always demanded strong rebounding and defense from his teams when he was coach of the Lakers, Knicks and Heat. You may recall a defensive clash a few years ago when Riley’s Heat took on Jeff Van Gundy’s New York Knicks in a battle of two coaches that preach great ‘D’. The totals were very low for each game (an average of 170), yet in the seven-game series the “unders” still prevailed by a 5-1-1 mark.

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 all of the time. Sometimes game 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 very difficult and tiring to play all out on defense for six straight months.

Once the playoffs roll around, however, it’s a different story, as there are fewer one-sided games or 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 through the entire playoffs. Also, a successful coaching staff demands 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 three seasons, the “under” is 28-22 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.

Coaches have a significant effect on how well a team plays defensively. Carlisle and Popovich are two outstanding coaches, able to get the most out of their teams defensively, as was Larry Brown, who took the Pistons to the last two NBA Finals. Don’t forget that back in the 2001 playoffs, Brown was the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that played great defense and made it to the NBA Finals. Philadelphia went 14-9 “under” the total in the 2001 playoffs, the same postseason there were 37 “unders” and 27 “overs.” Brown was then instrumental in teaching and motivating the Pistons defensively in 2004. They were not always pretty offensively, losing 82-64 and 94-79 in Games 3 and 4 against the Nets. That was after scoring just 78 points in Game 1 – but they still won by 22 points, 78-56 on their way to winning the title! Winning ugly is secondary to winning, of course.

It’s going to be very interesting to watch the Pistons in the 2006 playoffs as Brown is gone. They dominated the East during the regular season, but they did it with a different style. First-year coach Flip Saunders took a different approach than his predecessor, letting the veteran Pistons run and score more. It will be interesting to see how their defense performs in tight games and if they miss the demanding Brown.

Think back two years ago to the NBA Finals. Who won the title: the high-flying Laker offense in Shaq’s last LA season, or the blue-collar, physical Detroit defense? The team-oriented, defensive Pistons stunned the Lakers in 5 games despite being an 8-to-1 series underdog. Michael Jordan may have been best known for his offense, but it was his and the team’s defense from 1996-98 that netted the Chicago Bulls three straight titles. The same was true for the Lakers title run from 2000-02, and the champion Spurs in 1999, 2003 and 2005.

Let’s look at those Bulls teams under Michael Jordan. When Jordan won his last championship in 1998, the Bulls were a terrific 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. In 2004, the Pistons went 14-8-1 “under” the total.

One of the most interesting playoff series from a year ago was when the Suns met the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. It was the ultimate contrast in styles, with the Spurs playing their old-fashioned rugged defense while the Suns had electrified the NBA with a dazzling running offense behind MVP Steve Nash. While many fans rooted for the exciting underdog Suns, it was the no-nonsense defensive style of the Spurs that won the series in just 5 games. Yes, defense triumphed – again!

by Jim Feist.
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