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Crashing the Boards

   by Bryan Leonard - 05/04/2011

The REAL NBA season is starting to unfold, weeding out the lousy teams in the postseason and getting down to the Final Four. There are many ingredients to piecing together a championship team. Star power, a dominant low post player (or two), defense, a coach who can teach team-oriented play, depth. This time of year, many times you can simplify things as one stat often pops out of the box scores: Rebounding.
It’s not easy to win when the other team has an edge on the glass, especially the offensive glass. The offensive boards, in particular, can be a killer this time of the season, with offensive rebounds followed by high percentage shots and easy lay-ups.
Guard Derek Rose sliced up Atlanta for a career-high 44 points as the Bulls seized control of the Eastern Conference semifinals with their best performance of the postseason, romping to a 99-82 victory over the Hawks in Game 3 Friday night. The diminutive but quick point guard got all the headlines with his 44 points, but does anything else stand out about the game? How about Chicago with a whopping rebound edge of 47-34...on the opponent’s home court! That included 18 offensive rebounds. That was the real story of Game 3, which puts the top seeded Bulls back in command.
"Just attacking the whole game," Rose said. "That was my whole thought process." He could have been talking about teammates Noah and Boozer, too.
Five of the top six teams in rebounding differential during the regular season were Chicago, Orlando, Miami, the Lakers and Oklahoma City. Five made the playoffs and four are still playing.
When Miami won the title back in 2006, the Washington Wizards caught a break in Game 3 of their playoff series when Shaquille O'Neal sat out the game with a sore thigh. At least they thought it was a break. Miami won Game 3 102-95 to take a 3-0 lead in the series. A quick look at the box score shows how and why: Without the game's most dominant big man, Miami still outrebounded Washington 43-29 in that game.
Finesse teams that run uptempo, attacking styles like in the 1980s haven’t been able to squeeze into the Finals in quite a while, with monster defensive teams usually advancing. Back in 2004, the Lakers (+0.7 rebounding differential) met the Pistons (+2.1 RD) in the Finals and again the better rebounding team won, even though Los Angeles was a heavy favorite.
A dominant frontcourt behind Tim Duncan was the biggest reason the Spurs have won 4 NBA titles over the 12 years, and why the Celtics behind Kevin Garnett have been to two of the last three NBA Finals. The one year they didn’t make it, 2009, Garnett missed the playoffs with an injury.
One or two talented frontcourt players help in subtle ways, too. A guard can cheat defensively at times, letting his man go by him knowing that a big man is waiting down low to pick up his man and perhaps block the shot or grab the defensive rebound. Also, if a team needs a defensive or offensive rebound late in the game, or a high percentage shot, teams like Boston, Miami, Dallas or the Lakers have the option to go outside or inside. Teams with no star big men, like the Nuggets, Bucks, Pacers or 76ers, don’t have that option, making them more limited and easier to defend at crunch time. And what did Oklahoma City do at midseason that helped make them even better? Traded for defensive center Kendrick Perkins, which paid two dividends. In addition to adding a shot blocker/rebounder, the trade freed up room in the frontcourt to start Serge Ibaka, who has been terrific. It’s still a big man’s game!

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