Buffalo wins Game 2 15-13 to clinch Back-to-Back Titles; Byrne is Finals MVP

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LaxMetrics Playoffs: Buffalo’s Underappreciated Defense

When the Buffalo Bandits come up in conversation among lacrosse fans, it’s all but certain that the first point of discussion is the club’s electric and prolific offense. Two of the NLL’s three MVP finalists—Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne—lead the Buffalo attack and combined to post the most points by a pair of teammates in any season in league history. There is every reason to gush about Buffalo’s attack when looking forward to the finals.

But while the offense receives the bulk of the attention and praise, the Bandits’ defense has quietly become the most under-appreciated unit in all of professional lacrosse. Yes, goaltender Matt Vinc receives the credit you would expect of an all-time great, but the unit as a whole doesn’t seem to receive much recognition. The goal of this edition of LAXMetrics powered by the NLL is to shed light on the incredible run that Buffalo’s defense has enjoyed on its road back to yet another NLL Finals.

The Bandits are currently riding the best six-week stretch of defense that the league has seen this year.

When we examine the full resume of Buffalo’s 2023-24 season, we can’t reasonably claim that the group’s defense has been a juggernaut from start to finish. In fact, it wasn’t until game number 17 did the switch fully flip for the Bandits. Beginning with a dominating win over Calgary in Week 20, Buffalo’s defense has been on an unparalleled run of consistency and dominance.

The two measures of defensive success that we will refer to most frequently moving forward are Defensive Shooting Percentage and Offensive Rating Allowed. Defensive Shooting Percentage tells us how frequently a team or individual defender concedes a goal when contesting a shot by an opponent. Offensive Rating Allowed is a wholistic measure of offensive success that considers both the volume of production and efficiency. These two metrics are consistently the most valuable tools in evaluating defensive strength.

League-wide, the average Defensive Shooting Percentage during the 2023-24 season was 17.9%. Six teams finished with numbers better than the league average. Buffalo was not one of those six teams. In fact, the Bandits finished the regular season with a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 18.1%. But the story is slightly more complicated than that. In their first 15 games, the Bandits allowed a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 18.9% before turning a corner in Week 20 that has carried through the duration of the postseason.

Beginning with their Week 20 win over Calgary, the Bandits have strung together five consecutive defensive efforts in which they have held the opposition below 13% shooting. For context, there were only 49 instances in which one team held the other under 13% shooting—that accounts for 17% of all games. Needless to say, holding a team beneath the 13% threshold is fairly rare. The Bandits managed to accomplish that same feat in each of their last five games and six times throughout the course of the season. Only Toronto (seven) accounted for more instances. Panther City and Georgia also had six such games.

But just how good has the five-game stretch on which Buffalo enters the NLL Finals Presented by AXIA Time been? In that span, the club has limited the opposition to just 9.5% shooting. No other team in the league put together a three-game stretch in which it maintained a sub-10% Defensive Shooting Percentage. Buffalo has managed to beat that mark over its last five games. Remember, the Bandits had a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 18.9% over the season’s first 19 weeks. They went from being a slightly below average defense for nearly five months to being an unrivaled defensive juggernaut for the last six weeks. But this transformation isn’t a fluke of bad opposing shooting efforts or simply excellent goaltending. It’s a story of holistic defensive dominance.

Defensive Shooting Percentage isn’t the only stat that tells this same story for Buffalo. While Defensive Shooting Percentage is most effectively deployed to analyze a team’s efficiency in the back end, Offensive Rating Allowed serves as a much more overarching measure of general defensive competence. The lower the rating that a defense allows, the better that unit’s overall performance and vice versa.

Not only do the Bandits enter the Finals on a five-game streak of holding opponents under 13% shooting, they also limited each of those five opponents to Offensive Ratings below 100. For context, the league average Offensive Rating this season was 117. Buffalo had only held one opponent under 100 during the first 19 weeks of the season. Starting with Week 20, the Bandits have tied the longest streak of sub-100 games in the league this season. Only Toronto during the first five games of the Rock’s season produced a comparable run. But Toronto’s run is only a peer of Buffalo’s current streak from an Offensive Rating Allowed standpoint. The Rock allowed a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 13.7% during that window, which is significantly higher than the mark of 9.5% Buffalo has turned in. Even in the realm of elite defensive runs this year, Buffalo’s has been significantly the most impressive.

But what material impact does this recent run of defensive success have on the looming championship series? Simply put, it should make the Bandits the favorite if they weren’t already. In addition to boasting the most diabolically dangerous offensive duo in the league and a competent corps of supporting scorers, the Bandits now have a very reasonable claim to the league’s best defensive unit. None of this is to say that the FireWolves aren’t capable of solving Buffalo’s ascendent back end. They absolutely are. But if recent history is a valuable predictor of the future—it sometimes is and sometimes isn’t—all lacrosse fans should be fascinated by the match up of the Bandits’ defense against the young core of Albany’s offense.

But regardless of how the Finals play out, don’t forget about the run that Buffalo’s defense has strung together to get into the position that the team currently enjoys. Win or lose, the Bandits’ run to the Finals has been a feat of defensive dominance that might otherwise go unappreciated.