Postseason still about ‘D’

Apr 24, 2007 5:20 AM

The NBA playoffs started over the weekend, a good time to revisit an old sports adage: Defense still wins championships.

Look at all the recent Super Bowl winners. You might not realize this, but Colts QB Peyton Manning didn’t have a stellar postseason with 3 TDs and 7 INTs. The real story for the Colts run to the title was their improved defense, especially against the run, that allowed 14 points per game to opposing offenses in the postseason.

The year before, the Steelers’ defense led the way for a run to the Super Bowl and a victory over the Seahawks. Defense keyed the Patriots sprint to three NFL titles in four seasons, and the Spurs have won three NBA titles (1999, 2003, 2005) with defense the backbone of their run.

Back in 2002, the No. 1 defense of Tampa Bay smacked the No. 1 offense of the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Three years ago in the NBA Finals, who won the title — the high-flying Laker offense, or the blue-collar, physical Detroit defense?

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. The same was true for the Lakers during their recent run.

When Jordan won his last championship in 1998, the Bulls were a strong defensive team. Chicago went 13-6-1 in games under the total during the 1998 playoffs. In 2003, the Spurs went 15-8-1 under on their way to winning the title. The 2004 champion Pistons were 14-8-1 under.

Former Pistons coach Larry Brown was instrumental in teaching and motivating the Pistons defensively. They were not always pretty offensively, losing 82-64 and 94-79 in Games 3 and 4 against the Nets one season. They even lost 83-68 to the Pacers in a playoff game at home!

Detroit scored 78 points in Game 1 against the Nets, but still won by 22! Detroit went on to win the 2004 NBA title, stunning the Lakers as a 7/1 series dog. Of course, winning ugly is secondary to winning.

What led the Miami Heat to the NBA title last season? Dwyane Wade and defense! The Heat went 10-2 under their final 12 playoff games, which concluded with a 4-game winning streak over Dallas in the Finals. In the Eastern Conference championship series win over Detroit, all six games went under. In 2004, there were 37 unders and 27 overs in the NBA playoffs. Last season, the under was 14-4 from the Conference Finals to the NBA Finals.

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

Fans don’t notice that as much as a flashy offensive play, which is human nature in an 82-game regular season. 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. 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 three seasons, the under is 42-26 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.

These NBA playoffs are going to be interesting for several reasons. We might find outstanding defensive coaches squaring off against each other, like Jeff Van Gundy (Rockets), Avery Johnson (Mavericks), Jerry Sloan (Jazz) and Gregg Popovich (Spurs).

Except plenty of rough, physical play. In addition, there will be interesting contrast of styles in the West with run-and-gun fast break teams (Suns, Warriors, Nuggets) squaring off against monster-defensive teams like the Rockets and Spurs.

Remember that the last two seasons the offensive-minded Suns have gotten knocked out by the Spurs and Mavericks. Chalk up another triumph of great defense over great offense!