The NBA playoffs are rolling along, which is a good time to revisit an old sports adage: Defense wins championships.
Some teams are already in that playoff mode while fighting for positioning, with the Grizzlies on a 42-19 run UNDER the total playing on one day’s rest. Even an attacking offensive team like Oklahoma City ended the regular season on a 10-3-2 UNDER run, priming that defense for another long postseason run.
Look at some recent Super Bowl winners. It was defense that topped offense in January, with the high flying offenses of the Patriots and Falcons losing the Conference Championship games at home to defensive-oriented Ravens and 49ers.
Who was the better defensive team in last year’s NBA Finals? Miami ranked fourth in points allowed and fifth in field goal shooting defense, while favored Oklahoma City ranked 17 in points allowed. The better defensive team won four in a row after dropping the opener.
Two years ago two of the best defensive teams in the league met as the Mavericks upset the Heat in six. Three years ago the 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 wins.
Michael Jordan may have been best known for his offense, but it was team 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 great defensive team that went 13-6-1 UNDER. In 2003, San Antonio went 15-8-1 UNDER on its way to winning the title.
Coaches are a big part of this. Lionel Hollins at Memphis prefers a slow, defensive style despite a lot of young, athletic talent. Indiana’s Frank Vogel has gotten his team to play choking defense, tops in the NBA in field goal shooting defense and second in points allowed.
The Miami Heat won the NBA title in 2006 with Dwyane Wade and defense! The Heat went 10-2 UNDER the total their final 12 playoff games, which concluded with a four-game winning streak over Dallas in the Finals. They were coached by Pat Riley, who understood how important defense and rebounding are.
Six years ago in the Finals, the Spurs swept by holding Cleveland to 80 ppg in the Finals, 16 below their regular season average. 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 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.
Once the playoffs roll around, 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. 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 eight seasons, the UNDER is 91-79 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Remember that in five of six recent seasons the offensive-minded Phoenix Suns were knocked out by the Spurs and Mavericks and Miami ran defensive-circles around the Thunder in the Finals.
Chalk up more triumphs for defense over offense!
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Reach him at [email protected]