Defense Wins Championships
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
SECAUCUS, NJ, June 4, 2007 -- Yeah, yeah. LeBron James is pretty good. Sure, his Game 5 performance was one for the ages. And I'll admit that Daniel Gibson's shooting in Game 6 was impressive.

But what really impresses me about the Cleveland Cavaliers is their defense.

And when it comes to points per possession, they've been the best defensive team of the playoffs. In fact, they're the only team who has allowed less than one point per possession over the course of the postseason.

OFFENSIVE RATING
TEAM REG SEASON SERIES vs. CLE
Washington 111.1 104.7
New Jersey 108.0 96.7
Detroit 110.6 99.9
The table to the right shows how they've slowed down every team they've played so far, looking at the offensive rating (points scored per possession, multiplied by 100) of the Wizards, Nets and Pistons during the regular season vs. their series against the Cavs.

So, on average, the Cavs held their opponents to .095 less points per possession than they usually score. If you multiply that by 85-90 possessions per game, you get a difference of between eight or nine points per contest.

Meanwhile, the Cavs' own offensive rating went down from 106.8 in the regular season to 105.7 in the playoffs. So, say what you want about LeBron shooting or passing. Whether he takes the shot or gives it up to his teammate isn't why they're winning games. They're winning games because they're stopping their opponent on the other end of the floor.

And it's no coincidence that they're doing it with a coach who used to work for the team they're about to face in the 2007 NBA Finals. Mike Brown worked under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio for three seasons, including the Spurs' 2003 title run.

San Antonio has been one of the best defensive teams in the league for the last several years. This year they were the second best (Chicago was first) defensive team when it comes to points per possession, with the Cavs being fourth.

So, it's no surprise that, when you look at the scores of the two games (Cavs 88, Spurs 81, Cavs 82, Spurs 78) these two teams played this season, you don't see a lot of offense.

It was ugly on both ends, but it was uglier on the Spurs' end. That's why the Cavs won both games. To further illustrate how much they took the Spurs out of their game, let's look at San Antonio's numbers (offensive and defensive) when they played the Cavs, as compared to their regular season and playoff numbers...

SPURS
POSS/G RANK OFF RAT RANK DEF RAT RANK
Regular Season 88.7 27 111.1 4 101.5 2
Playoffs 88.8 7 110.3 3 105.8 6
vs. CLE 96.8 82.1 86.7

POSS/G = Possessions per game, also known as pace
OFF RAT = Points scored per possession, multiplied by 100
DEF RAT = Points allowed per possession, multiplied by 100

So, the Spurs were the fourth best offensive team in the league this season, but their offensive rating was an atrocious 82.1 in the two games against the Cavs. That was easily their worst rating against any opponent this season (next worse was a 92.2 rating against Denver).

So, what did the Cavs do defensively against the Spurs to slow them down? Let's look at the Spurs basic offensive numbers...

SPURS OFFENSE
FG% 3P% FTA FT% AST/FG TO
Regular Season .474 .381 24.1 .751 .605 13.9
vs. CLE .401 .294 27.0 .648 .526 15.5

The Spurs' turnovers were up a bit against Cleveland, but not significantly. Their free throw shooting was a bit worse, but they got to the line more often, so they only scored 0.6 less points from the line per game against the Cavs.

Obviously, the big difference for San Antonio was their field goal percentage, both inside the arc and out. There are several possible reasons for poor shooting, and with such a small sample size, the main reason could easily be luck. Maybe the shots just weren't falling for the Spurs on Nov. 3 and Jan. 2.

But let's use our Hotzones feature to take a look at where the Spurs are getting their shots against the Cavs vs. during the rest of the season...

If you calculate the percentage of shots coming from each area, you'll see that the Spurs basically took the same shots against the Cavs as the did the rest of the year. In fact, they took more shots from around the rim against Cleveland (45.1 percent of all FGA) than they usually do (40.6 percent), but they shot them at a lower percentage.

That trend continues if you look at all shots within close range (the four areas closest to the rim). They took 62.0 percent of their shots from within those four areas against the Cavs (as opposed to 55.0 percent for the season), but shot just .477 (.546 for the season).

Where the Spurs' really struggled was on the baseline. They took 42 shots from the areas along the baseline, not including the area closest to the rim, making just eight of them, a woeful .190 clip.

Bad luck or good defense?

There's probably some luck involved, but the defense is certainly a factor. And it's not about individual defenders. Sure, Larry Hughes led the league in steals a couple of years ago, Zydrunas Ilgauskas can block some shots, and Eric Snow is a very good on-the-ball defender, but the Cavs stop you because they work as a unit.

It starts with the guards. They will try to push the ball handler away from the middle of the floor. They'll use the sidelines and the baseline as an extra defender, limiting passing lanes.

Then the bigs are ready for penetration. They'll slide in place, alter your shot, take the charge, or just get in the way. According to 82games.com, Cleveland's Anderson Varejao led the league in taking charges this season.

So, while the Spurs didn't take significantly more shots from the baseline than they usually do, those shots were better contested.

The Spurs themselves have similar priorities on defense, but they're slightly different in that their off-the-ball defenders will stay at home more than most teams in the league. This is evidenced by their opponents' assist-field goal ratio, which was second lowest in the league this season.

The Cavs, however, were in the middle of the pack when it comes to their opponents' assist-field goal ratio. They allow for more ball movement. Still, the Spurs' assist-field goal ratio against Cleveland (.526) was significantly lower than their ratio for the season (.605).

Of course, we're talking about two games that took place seven and five months ago. The Spurs are playing much better now than they were early in the season. They really started to hit their stride in February, when they went on 13-game winning streak. So, we shouldn't look at the two games they played against the Cavs and declare that Cleveland has their number like Golden State had Dallas' in the first round.

Still, we should know going into this series that the Cavs know how to defend the Spurs. And as talented as LeBron James is, as efficient as Tim Duncan is in the low post, as quick as Tony Parker is and as hot as Daniel Gibson can get, this series will be a defensive series.

The games will be low-scoring. There won't be many big leads. Each contest could be in the balance in the final six minutes. And in those final six minutes, there's likely to be more stops than made shots.

But don't decry the offense when that happens. Appreciate the defense. Whoever said that it wins championships was right.

And it will win this one.

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