Defense and Totals in the NBA Playoffs

By: Jim Feist | Tuesday, April 26, 2016



Defense and Totals in the NBA Playoffs 

by Jim Feist


Defense still wins championships. This old sports adage is very accurate. The Warriors stormed to the NBA title last year with an incredible display of long range shooting from MVP Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. But don't forget they were No. 1 in the NBA in field goal shooting defense (.428%) and No. 5 at defending the three-pointer.  This season? The Warriors were No. 3 field goal shooting defense and defending beyond the arc. Yes, they have been a powerhouse offense and defense. 

The previous June in the NBA Finals San Antonio held Miami under 100 points in all five games, including 86 and 87 points in the final two contests. Miami scored 18 points in the first quarter of Game 4, then 11 and 18 in the middle quarters of the finale on the way to another title. 

Look at some recent Super Bowl winners. Carolina was favored in the Super Bowl in February, but got pushed around by the No. 1 ranked Denver defense in a smothering performance. Defense keyed the Patriots' run to three Super Bowl titles in four seasons, while the Spurs have won five NBA titles with defense the backbone of their run. 

The 2014 Patriots improved their defense immensely with newcomers Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, going from 28th in the NFL in third down defense to 14th. And let’s face it: MVP Tom Brady’s fourth quarter heroics were overshadowed by the biggest play of the game, an interception at the goal line by rookie Malcolm Butler. 

The team they beat, Seattle, has been a dominant defensive team in the league for four straight years, winning two NFC championships and one Super Bowl. 

Cleveland had a 2-to-1 lead in last year's NBA Finals, but ranked No. 13 in the league in points allowed that season and No. 20 in field goal shooting defense. Based on field goal defense, the superior defensive team rolled in the final three games for the title. This season the Cavaliers were the top team in the Eastern Conference in points allowed (98.1 ppg), No. 3 in the league.

The previous season Miami and San Antonio ranked No. 5 and 6 in the NBA in points allowed, with the Spurs 8th in field goal shooting defense, the Heat 16th.  In 2013 when Miami beat San Antonio, the Heat ranked better on defense, 5th in points allowed to the Spurs’ 11th, and sixth in FG defense to San Antonio’s No. 8 ranking. 

Remember when Dallas upset LeBron and the Heat in the Finals? The truth is the better  defensive team won. Six 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 Finals' 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.  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. Utah prefers a slow, defensive-style under Quin Snyder, while San Antonio's Greg Popovich has always preached aggressive defense, leading the NBA this season in points allowed,  No. 4 in field goal shooting defense (.437%) and No. 1 at defending the three-pointer.  

Nine years ago in the Finals, the Spurs swept by holding the Cavaliers to 76, 92, 72 and 82 points (3-1 under). The Cavaliers averaged 80 ppg in the Finals, 16 points below their regular season average. Last postseason the Warriors started 10-2 under the total heading into the Finals. Game 1 went over only because of overtime, while the next four sailed under. 

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 11 seasons, the "under" is 117-102-1 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Look for defense to often have an edge over the  offenses. 

 For more of Jim Feist click here.

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