Defense and Totals in
the NBA Playoffs
by Jim Feist
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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