Scoring up, but now for some D

May 24, 2005 7:01 AM

We’re down to the Final Four in the NBA playoffs, and it’s about time!

This has been a fascinating postseason, with several team-oriented clubs (Suns, Pistons, Pacers) and an unusual "clash of styles." Instead of so many slow-down defensive games, as in recent years, this year’s playoffs have featured several run-and-gun, old-school, fast-break style teams — a refreshing change of pace.

However, remember that defense is usually the common ingredient in all sports when it comes to advancing in the postseason and winning a championship. There was no better example of this than a year ago. The flashy, high profile Lakers opened as a 5-1 favorite over the blue-collar Pistons. The early money came in on LA as the public was enamored with the flashy team (as usual).

The Pistons were eventually +700 to win the title. They were the blue collar team, defined by unselfish play and slam-dunk defense. Detroit went on to win title over the Lakers in five games.

Keep this in mind: Over the last four years in the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, the "under" is 37-28-1.

Naturally, coaches know the value of defense this time of year and you often find the better defensive teams advancing and facing each other. The Spurs are 53-29 "under" the total this season, including 31-16 at home.

The defending champion Pistons started 6-3 "under" this postseason. Larry Brown got them to turn up the defense on the Pacers last week, after falling behind 2-1, and the Pistons put on an awesome display of postseason defense. That’s nothing new. On the way to the championship a year ago, the Pistons went 14-8-1 "under" the total.

Another team that knows how to play defense is Miami, with or without Shaq. Credit head coach Stan Van Gundy for the improvement. The Heat allowed just 42.7 percent field goal accuracy by opponents, fourth best in the NBA during the regular season. You think that’s because of Shaq? Well, it’s not: A year ago, without Shaq, Miami allowed 42.8, one of the top marks in pro basketball.

One thing to keep in mind when watching the Heat this week: Miami is 62-16 SU, 41-33 ATS as a favorite. However as an underdog, they are only 5-7 SU, though 7-5 ATS.

It’s interesting to examine how Miami did this regular season against the defending champs. Shaq played in two of the meetings, with the home team winning: Detroit won 78-77 at home and Miami won 89-78 at home. In the final meeting, Detroit won 80-72 at Miami, but Shaq sat out with a stomach virus. Notice the scores of those games? There wasn’t any! All three games sailed "under" by 32, 16 and 38 points. That’s going "under" the total by an average of 28 points!

In the one Miami win, Shaq wasn’t a major factor, either, with 21 points, 7 rebounds. The guy who went crazy was Dwyane Wade with 31 points, 10 rebounds on 12-of-18 shooting. The same Wade who’s been making these NBA playoffs his personal Showtime.

Finally, look at the team shooting percentages in those three Pistons/Heat meetings: 37 percent, 32, 46, 39, 34, and 37. Keep in mind the last two seasons, the "under" is 20-11 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Defense doesn’t disappear now, it gets more intense.