Defense, totals emerge during
NBA playoffs

Apr 26, 2005 6:55 AM

Defense still wins championships. This old sports adage is very accurate.

USC’s defense manhandled Oklahoma in the Orange bowl for college football’s national title, and defense has keyed the Patriots run to three Super Bowl titles the last four seasons. The one year the Pats didn’t win, 2002, the No. 1 defense of Tampa Bay smacked the No. 1 offense of the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

A year ago in the NBA Finals, the blue collar, physical Detroit defense dethroned the high-flying Lakers offense.

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 during their recent run and the champion Spurs in 1999 and 2003.

When Jordan won his last championship in 1998, the Bulls went 13-6-1 in games "under" the total during the playoffs. In 2003, the Spurs went 15-8-1 "under" the total and the Pistons were 14-8-1 "under" last season.

It’s nice to see Pistons coach Larry Brown back behind the bench, recovering from a late-season illness that threatened to keep him home for the rest of the season. Brown was instrumental in teaching and motivating the Pistons defensively last season.

Detroit is not always pretty offensively, losing 82-64 and 94-79 in Games 3 and 4 against the Nets in last year’s playoffs. The Pistons even lost to the Pacers in a playoff game, 83-68. They scored only 78 points in Game 1 against the Nets, but won by 22. Detroit also went on to win the NBA title, stunning the Lakers as a 7-1 series dog. Winning ugly is secondary to winning, of course.

Brown coached the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that played tough defense and made it to the NBA finals. Philadelphia went 14-9 "under" the total in the 2001 playoffs. A year ago there were 37 "unders" and 27 "overs" in the NBA playoffs.

Strong defensive teams play as hard as they can defensively during the regular season a lot of the time, but not all. Sometimes games are blowouts and teams will coast on defense or have fun trying to score in the final quarter, rather than work hard on defense.

Once the playoffs roll around, however, there are fewer one-sided games and opportunities to coast. The last two seasons "under" is 20-11 in the Eastern/Western Conference finals and the NBA finals.

Oddsmakers are aware of this and often adjust the totals accordingly. When the Pistons and Pacers met in the East finals last spring, the total for Game 1 opened 163. For Games 5 and 6, it dropped to 159. Five of those six games sailed "under."

You may recall a defensive clash a few years ago when Pat Riley’s Miami Heat took on the Jeff Van Gundy’s New York Knicks in a battle of two coaches that preach great ”˜D’. The totals were very low (170 average), yet "unders" prevailed 5-1-1.

These NBA playoffs are going to be interesting. Except plenty of rough, physical play with few easy scoring opportunities.

There will be an interesting contrast of styles in the West, with run-and-gun fast break teams (Suns, Mavericks, Kings) squaring off against monster defensive teams like the Rockets, Grizzlies and Spurs.