Playoff Underdogs Use Opponents’ Strengths Against Them

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The New York Sun

There have been some years when the NBA playoffs over delivered on hype and undelivered on excitement. Suffice it to say, 2006 is not one of them.

Monday night gave us a doubleheader featuring two of the best playoff games you’ll ever see. Last-second finishes, crazy home crowds, clutch plays, surprising outcomes – it was all there. And the upshot from it all is that the Spurs-Pistons final we were all expecting suddenly looks a lot less likely to happen.

Let’s start in Cleveland, where the Cavs snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the fourth quarter for the second time in three days. It was also the second time in three days that LeBron James was deified for leading Cleveland to victory when, in truth, he turned in a mediocre performance – at least by his lofty standards.

No, the reason the Cavs are still alive and kicking is because they’ve defended far better than any reasonable person had a right to expect. The Cavs were an average defensive team during the regular season, finishing 14th in Defensive Efficiency (my measure of a team’s points allowed per 100 possessions). They did nothing to change that impression in the first round, permitting Washington to score at a better rate than the Wizards did in the regular season.

Thus, when the Cavs entered the conference semifinals against the Pistons – who boasted the league’s third-most efficient offense – one figured they would be giving up points left and right. Sizing up the series, I figured only a brilliant offensive effort from James and company could keep the Cavs competitive.

That scene played out in the series opener, when the Pistons nailed one wide-open jumper after another en route to a 113-86 decimation. But the tide slowly turned in Game 2. After the Cavs gave up 78 points in the first three quarters of that contest, they slammed the door in the fourth, holding the Pistons to just 19 points while making a late-game run before ultimately losing 97-91.

The Game 2 fourth quarter set the tone for what has happened in the two games in Cleveland. Incredibly, the Cavs have kept up the defensive intensity and sustained it for eight more quarters. As a result, what had been a free-flowing, skillful Detroit offense became sluggish and predictable. The Cavs held the mighty Pistons to 149 points in the two games, on an embarrassing 36.3% shooting mark.

And once again, Cleveland raised the defense another notch when it mattered most. The Cavs held the Pistons to 35 points after the break in Game 3, then completely stifled them in the fourth quarter of Game 4. Detroit scored only 13 points in the quarter – including just one in the first 6:40, when the Cavs erased a six-point deficit.

In truth, that defense was the only thing saving Cleveland from a sweep, because the offense was mediocre at best. James’s brilliance sometimes causes his teammates to stand around waiting for him to do something amazing, which leads to some of the worst ball movement you’ll ever see. Most teams run a play called “pick-and-roll,” but only the Cavs run “pick-and-stand-there-like-an-idiot-watching-LeBron.” The one glorious exception has been backup center Anderson Varejao, who seems to be the only Cavalier to figure out that if he runs around without the ball, James will reward him with a parade of a lay-ups.

That’s why I don’t necessarily see the past two games as a coronation of Le-Bron. Yes, I think he’s the best player in the league and got robbed in the MVP voting, but in the past two games only his fourth quarter of Game 3 had a whiff of greatness about it. His stat line in Game 4 – 8-for-23 from the field, 5-for-10 from the line, eight turnovers – looked more like something from Antoine Walker’s portfolio.

No, the coronation I see here is of Cavs head coach Mike Brown. Having cut his teeth as an assistant in San Antonio and Indiana, he’s been preaching the gospel of defensive intensity since he arrived in Cleveland. It appears his message may finally be getting through. And with Rasheed Wallace nursing a sprained ankle, that defensive feistiness may allow Cleveland to pull off a shocking upset.

Ironically, it’s another San Antonio disciple who’s getting all the credit for preaching defense – Dallas coach Avery Johnson.Yet his team has been winning the way the Mavs always have – by turning the game into a track meet and overwhelming opponents with their offensive firepower.

That’s not meant as a knock on Johnson’s work. In fact, he came up with the single most important adjustment of the 2006 postseason when he inserted speedy second-year guard Devin Harris in place of defensive specialist Adrian Griffin before Game 2 against the Spurs. Johnson loves Griffin’s defense, but he realized that replacing him with Harris would completely alter who the Spurs could put on the court.

When the offensively-challenged Griffin played, the Spurs could play Tim Duncan against him and Rasho Nesterovic or Nazr Mohammed on center DeSagana Diop. The lineup gave the Spurs the two-big-man alignment that forms the foundation of their defense, helping to snuff out many of the Mavs’ drives to the basket. The proof was in the pudding, as Dallas scored only 85 points in a Game 1 defeat.

Once Harris entered the lineup in Game 2, that all went out the window. Duncan couldn’t guard any of Dallas’s perimeter players, and San Antonio was reluctant put him on Dirk Nowitzki. Instead, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had to take his centers off the floor, put Duncan on Diop, and insert Brent Barry or Michael Finley to handle Dallas’s smaller lineup.

The Spurs’ defense is totally screwed up as a result. With one less shot-blocker to deal with, Dallas’s driving lanes are wide open, and that’s the thing they do best. People don’t normally think of the Mavs this way since their best player is a jump shooter, but Dallas is a devastating one-on-one team that loves to drive to the basket. Players like Harris, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Howard, and Marquis Daniels repeatedly take it to the rim.

All those fouls have given the Mavs a source of easy points and taken key Spurs off the floor in crunch time. In Game 3, it was Duncan’s sixth foul that left San Antonio a star short on its final play; in Game 4, it was Manu Ginobili’s turn to ride the pine down the stretch. Should it happen again in Game 5, San Antonio’s summer will begin a month earlier than expected.

In short, then, everything we thought we knew is backwards. The Cavs, not the Mavs, are the upstart winning with defense, while Dallas has taken over its series with an offensive explosion. One thing is for certain, though: If the Pistons can’t solve their offensive woes, and the Spurs can’t remedy their defensive problems, then the Pistons-Spurs repeat we’ve been expecting for 12 months will have to wait for some other year.

Mr. Hollinger is the author of the 2005-06 Pro Basketball Forecast. He can be reached at

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