Defense and Totals in the NBA Playoffs

by Jim Feist of

The NBA playoffs are rolling
along, 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
positioning, with the Grizzlies on a 42-19 run under the total playing on one
day’s rest. Even an attacking offensive team like the Oklahoma City Thunder
ended the regular season on a 10-3-2 run under the total, priming that defense
for another long postseason run.

Look at some recent Super Bowl winners.
It was defense that topped offense in January, with the high flying offenses of
the Patriots and Falcons losing the Conference Championship games at home to
defensive-oriented Ravens and 49ers. The Patriots lost twice to the Giants with
the New York defense stepping up and taking charge, 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 seven 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.

Who was the better defensive
team in last year’s NBA Finals? Miami ranked fourth in the NBA in points allowed
and 5th in field goal shooting defense, while favored Oklahoma City ranked 17th
in points allowed. The better defensive team won four in a row after dropping
the opener.

Two years ago two of the best defensive teams in the league
met as the Mavericks upset the Heat in six games. Three 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. Memphis
Head Coach Lionel Hollins prefers a slow, defensive-style despite a lot of
young, athletic talent. Indiana Coach Frank Vogel has gotten his team to play
choking defense, tops in the NBA in field goal shooting defense and second in
points allowed.

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.

Six 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 91-79 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference
Finals and the NBA Finals. Remember that in five of six recent seasons the
offensive-minded Suns were knocked out by the Spurs and Mavericks and Miami ran
defensive-circles around the Thunder in the Finals. Chalk up more triumphs for
defense over offense!


One thought on “Defense and Totals in the NBA Playoffs

  1. This will be one exciting playoffs season for all the teams. I just hope that officiating will be fair as compared to previous nba season. I hate to see injuries specially at this crucial moments. Very excited to see the nba finals go to a game 7. Goodluck to all the teams.

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