How Defense Beats Offense in the NBA Playoffs

LeBron and GeorgePhoto by Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Watching the NBA playoffs these past few weeks forced me to consider the following question: Is it better to have an explosive offense or a stout defense in the playoffs?

Call me old fashioned but I love defense. There’s the age old adage in sports that defense wins championships, but how statistically accurate is this? In a match-up of a top defense against a top offense, who would win? Naturally, I decided to do some research to see how the top regular season offenses and defenses performed in the NBA playoffs. I defined the top offensive and defensive teams as the teams that finished 1st and 2nd in offensive rating (ORtg: an estimate of the number of points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (DRtg: an estimate of the number of points allowed per 100 possessions). I then went back and looked at the past 12 years of data starting in 2000. What I found was quite interesting (Don’t let the tables scare you. I have the key points summarized below).

top offensestop offense summary

top defensestop defense summary

Key Observations from the tables above:

A top defensive team has made it to the conference finals 11 out of the last 12 years (2006 being the exception).

30% of the top defensive teams over the past 12 years made it to the NBA Finals compared to 16% of the top offensive teams.

The last time a top offensive team won a championship was in the 2002 playoffs when the Lakers repeated the feat from 2001.

Three of the first round losses suffered by a top defense or offense were cases of a number one seed losing to an eight seed (highlighted within tables).

Lessons from the biggest Upsets in NBA Playoff History

A number eight seed has upset a number one seed four times in NBA history. All four occurrences involved a number one seed that was either a top ranked offense or defense that season.

1994: 1 seed Seattle Supersonics (#2 offense) lose to 8 seed Denver Nuggets in 5 games

After scoring 106 points and winning Game 1, the top seeded Sonics failed to score 100 points for the remainder of the series as Dikembe Mutombo and the Denver Nuggets  (5th best defense) became the first 8 seed to defeat a 1 seed in NBA history. Mutombo averaged 6 blocks during the five game series, and the pressure of being the first 1 seed to lose in the first round was too much for the Sonics who lost Game 5 in overtime. After being down 2-0 in the series, The Nuggets played loose basketball while the Sonics slowly crumbled under the spotlight. The Sonics shot 48.4% during regular season but went cold in their losses in games 3, 4 and 5, shooting just 41.8%.

2007: 1 Seed Dallas Mavericks (#2 offense) lose to 8 seed Golden State Warriors in 6 games

In 2007, the Golden State Warriors became the first 8 seed to beat a 1 seed in a 7-game series. The Warriors stunned Dallas in Game 1 by winning 97-85. After Game 1, Golden State rode Baron Davis and the energy of the raucous crowd in Oakland (Golden State might have the best home court advantage in the playoffs of any NBA team. Those fans are loud). Golden State won all three of their home games in the series by an average margin of 15.6 points and defeated the Mavericks in 6 games.

2011: 1 seed San Antonio Spurs (#2 offense) lose to 8 seed Memphis Grizzlies in 6 games

In 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the San Antonio Spurs. The Grizzlies pulled off the Game 1 upset by defeating the Spurs 101-98 (first playoff victory in franchise history), and then rode the momentum to win their three home games in Memphis. However, the  full story of this series began before Game 1. The Spurs went on a late season slide (lost 8 of their last 12 games) and came into the playoffs flat. Before Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan could realize what was happening, the series was over. During the series, the Spurs saw their offense rating fall to 100.5 from a rating of 109.4 during regular season.

2012: 1 seed Chicago Bulls (#1 defense) lose to 8 seed Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games

The Bulls must be paying for all the karma that comes with dominating the NBA during the 1990’s because injuries have been the story of their past two playoff runs. Less than 90 seconds away from securing a 103-91 victory over the 76ers in Game 1, The Bulls lost reigning MVP Derrick Rose to a knee injury that has sidelined him since. The Bulls lost Game 2 and won Game 3 only to have defensive anchor Joakim Noah injure his ankle. Even without Rose and Noah, the Bulls limited the Sixers to 89, 69, and 79 in games 3, 4, and 5. Too bad the Bulls could only score 82, 77 and 78 in those games and lost the series in 6 games. Still, the Bulls defense rating during the playoffs (96.5) was close to their league leading defense rating during the regular season (95.3). The Bulls lost this series because of injuries and their inability to score due to these injuries.

The Last Word

All in all, good defense translates better into playoff success than good offense.

Strong defense is crowd-proof (teams are not going to change their defensive game plan just because the crowd is loud) and has the ability to take the home crowd out of the game (think game 6 of the Knicks-Celtics first round matchup. The Knicks limited the Celtics to 47 points through three quarters and completely took an emotionally-charged Boston crowd out the game).

Strong defense is also not as reliant on individual players as offense is (Jamal Salmon wrote about this as it relates to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lucky for them they still have that Durant guy). A team’s defensive identity is usually dictated by the head coach and not by the players. Tom Thibodeau did not and will not change his defensive strategy with Derrick Rose out of the lineup, but his offensive strategy was forced to adjust without that one player.

Finally, defense is pressure proof. During the playoffs, palms tend to get sweaty, offensive confidence can swing back and forth (J.R. Smith was the one of the hottest players in the NBA before his infamous elbow in game 3 of the Knicks-Celtics series; He has shot 28.5% since), and players will often abandon their offensive game plan out of desperation in certain situations. The Seattle Supersonics saw this happen to them in 1994 as the possibility of being the first number one seed to lose to an eight seed built with each game.

In case you were wondering, the top offensive teams in the NBA this season are the Miami Heat (ORtg of 110.3) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (ORtg of 110.2), and the top defensive teams are the Indiana Pacers (DRtg of 96.6) and Memphis Grizzlies (DRtg of 97.4). We are already witnessing a match-up of a top defense (Memphis) against a top offense (OKC) and could see the same in the Eastern Conference Finals if Miami and Indiana advance. The Knicks fan in me hopes not.

 

* All data is courtesy of NBA.com/stats and Basketball-reference.com

 

 
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    One Comment

    1. In terms of playoff upsets I think you forgot about the 98-99 Knicks. 8th seed in the East, shit offense but 4th best defense in the league. Upset number 1 Miami and made it to the the finals

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