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John Schuhmann

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Raymond Felton and the Bobcats boast the NBA's second-most efficient defense.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Old adage proves true: Defense does win in postseason


Posted Apr 8 2010 12:29PM

They say defense wins championships.

Well, the Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat all play great defense. They rank second, third and fourth in the league respectively in defensive efficiency. And as of last night, they've all clinched a playoff berth.

The problem is that all three are poor offensively, ranking 24th, 23rd and 19th , respectively. The Chicago Bulls, if they catch the Raptors for eighth in the East, would be another unbalanced defensive team in the playoffs, ranking 10th defensively and 28th offensively.

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On the other side of the spectrum are teams like the Suns, Raptors, Nuggets and Hawks, who are much better offensively than defensively. Whether that eighth spot goes to the Raptors or Bulls, there will likely be seven unbalanced teams that qualify for the playoffs this year.

Of the last 10 NBA champions, eight have ranked in the top 10 both offensively and defensively in the regular season. Only three teams meet that criteria this year: Cleveland (second offensively and seventh defensively), Orlando (fourth and first), and San Antonio (ninth and ninth). Utah qualified as recently as Tuesday, but fell to 11th defensively after their shootout with the Thunder on Tuesday night.

The other two titles of the last 10 seasons have gone to teams that were unbalanced. The 2000-01 Lakers ranked second offensively and 19th defensively, but turned up the D in the postseason. The 2003-04 Pistons were 18th offensively and second defensively, but got better on offense after a deadline-day deal for Rasheed Wallace.

With those two teams being the exception to the rule, it's painfully clear that a strong defense will get you further than a strong offense...

(Editor's note: For the purposes of this article, the definition of an unbalanced team is one with a difference of 10 or greater between their league ranking offensively and defensively (in either direction). An "unbalanced defensive team" is one who's defensive ranking is at least 10 spots better than its offensive ranking, and an "unbalanced offensive team" is one whose offensive ranking is at least 10 spots better than its defensive ranking.)

• Only one other unbalanced offensive team (the 1999-00 Pacers) has made the Finals in the last 10 seasons, while four other unbalanced defensive teams have: the 2001-02 Nets, the 2002-03 Nets, the 2004-05 Pistons and the 2006-07 Cavs.

• Of the 20 teams who have made the Finals in the last 10 seasons, 13 of them have been top-five defensive teams, while only eight have been top-five offensive teams.

• Of the 50 teams who have ranked in the top-five defensively over the last 10 seasons, only one (the 2001-02 Heat, who ranked fourth) has failed to make the playoffs. And 35 of the 50 have won at least one series.

• Of the 50 teams who have ranked in the top-five offensively over the last 10 seasons, six have failed to make the playoffs, including last season's Suns, who were the No. 1 offensive team in the league. Only 30 of the 50 have won at least one series.

• From 1999-00 through last season, 38 unbalanced defensive teams have made the playoffs, 18 of them have won at least one series, and they've won an average of 4.7 postseason games. In the same time, 29 unbalanced offensive teams have made the playoffs, 13 of them have won at least one series, and they've won an average of 4.4 postseason games.

• Of the 34 playoff upsets (series won by the team that didn't have home-court advantage) over the last 10 seasons, 12 have been pulled off by unbalanced defensive teams, while only five have been pulled off by unbalanced offensive teams.

• Over the last three postseasons, the better defensive team has won 34 of the 45 playoff series, while the better offensive team has won 26 of the 45.

• Over the last three postseasons, when two teams have met in the playoffs and one was better offensively while the other was better defensively, the better defensive team has won 17 of the 26 series.

All stats are through Wednesday, April 7.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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