by Jim Feist
The NBA playoffs are rolling along, which is a good time to revisit an old sports adage: Defense wins championships. Last June in the NBA Finals San Antonio held Miami under 100 points in all five games, including 86 and 87 points in the final two contests. Miami scored 18 points in the first quarter of Game 4, then 11 and 18 in the middle quarters of the finale.
Look at some recent Super Bowl winners. The Patriots improved their defense immensely his season with newcomers Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, going for 28th in the NFL in third down defense to 14th last season. And let’s face it: MVP Tom Brady’s fourth quarter heroics were overshadowed by the biggest play of the game, an interception at the goal line by rookie Malcolm Butler.
The team they beat, Seattle, has been the dominant defensive team in the league for three straight years, winning the last two NFC championships. Three years ago it was defense that topped offense in when the high flying offenses of the Patriots and Falcons lost the Conference Championship games at home to defensive-oriented Ravens and 49ers.
The Patriots lost twice to the Giants with the New York defense stepping up and taking charge, holding the Pats explosive, no-huddle attack to 14 and 17 points. You might not remember, but QB Peyton Manning didn't have a stellar postseason nine years ago when he won his only Super Bowl, 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 ppg to opposing offenses in the postseason.
Who was the better defensive team in last year's NBA Finals? Miami and San Antonio ranked No. 5 and 6 in the NBA in points allowed, with the Spurs 8th in field goal shooting defense, the Heat 16th. In 2013 when Miami beat San Antonio, the Heat ranked better on defense, 5th in points allowed to the Spurs’ 11th, and sixth in FG defense to San Antonio’s No. 8 ranking.
In 2012 Miami ranked fourth in the NBA in points allowed and 5th in field goal shooting defense, while favored Oklahoma City ranked 17th in points allowed. The better defensive team won four in a row after dropping the opener.
Remember when Dallas upset LeBron and the Heat in the Finals? The truth is the better defensive team won. Five years ago 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 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. Let's look at Jordan's Bulls. When Jordan won his last championship in 1998, the Bulls were a great defensive team and notice that Chicago went 13-6-1 in games "under" the total during the 1998 playoffs. In 2003, the Spurs went 15-8-1 "under" the total on their way to winning the title.
Coaches are a big part of this. Memphis prefers a slow, defensive-style along with Indiana Coach Frank Vogel, who prefers a choking defense to an uptempo attack. Eight years ago in the Finals, the Spurs swept by holding the Cavaliers to 76, 92, 72 and 82 points. Three of the four games went under the total. The Cavaliers averaged 80 ppg in the Finals, 16 points below their regular season average. 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 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, however, it's a different story, as 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 ten seasons, the "under" is 107-97-1 combined in the Eastern/Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Remember that in five of six recent seasons the offensive-minded 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!