Defense wins championships.
That’s the old sports adage, of course, but is there still truth in it? Who just won the Super Bowl? The Giants, shutting down the Patriots Top 3 offense, just like they did in 2008 when the Patriots had a record setting offense but scored just 14 points in the Super Bowl.
Who met in the NBA Finals a year ago? The Heat and Mavericks, two Top 10 defensive teams. Yes, we think of Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs as a run-and-gun team, and they have been for a while, but the fact is they were an outstanding defensive team when the won the title in 2011 under Rick Carlisle and Tyson Chandler.
San Antonio is still in the running for another title, which would be the fifth in the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, two guys who know ALL about the value of defense
this time of the season. San Antonio was second in the NBA in scoring this season, but once the playoffs started notice that their defense kicked in. They held the Jazz to 91, 83, 81 and 90 points in their four-game sweep – and that was against a Utah team that was fourth in the NBA in scoring! That was part of a 6-2 run under the total to start the playoffs for San Antonio.
When the Spurs and Pistons me for the title in 2007 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. For the NBA 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 few years ago 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, 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 playoffs that season.
Notice that when the Pistons and Pacers met in the Eastern Conference Finals
that same season 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. Coaches are a big part of whether a team attacks defensively or not. You may recall a defensive clash a few years ago when Pat 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.
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 two straight NBA Finals. And 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, as well, upsetting the Lakers in the Finals. 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.