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Miami’s Rebounding Concerns

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The Heat hit a speed bump in what had been an otherwise smooth postseason Saturday night, falling amid a storm of Brooklyn 3’s, including nine combined from Joe Johnson and Mirza Teletovic.  The disparity from beyond the arc was a big factor, to be sure – the Nets shot an even 60% on 25 attempts while the Heat were just 33.3% on their 24.  In some ways, the game was a lesson on how simple shooting variance can dramatically swing singular outcomes, with Miami shooting just over 44% on their uncontested field-goal tries, per NBA.com’s SportVU box score tracking, and Brooklyn going over 58% on just two more of such attempts.  Such numbers are obviously prone to large swings from game to game, and it is indeed true that more even totals here would have likely produced a different result.

Of course, both the eye test and the numbers say there was something more to Saturday’s game than shooting randomness.  The Nets were far more active, to be expected for a desperate team looking to avoid the dreaded 3-0 hole, and whether or not that’s sustainable over the remainder of the series may determine whether Brooklyn can indeed claw their way back into things.  They doubled Miami up in the assist column, and the same SportVU tracking from above shows they recorded eight secondary assists, or “hockey assists”, to just one for the Heat.  Deron Williams looked something like his former self, time and again initiating the kind of crisp rotations necessary to out-pace Miami’s speedy recoveries.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the huge rebounding disparity between the teams.  The Heat were out-boarded 43-27 in total, including a 34-22 disadvantage on the defensive glass.  LeBron James led them with eight, and no one else had more than five, in many cases the result of a simple lack of effort.  Chris Bosh was particularly ineffective on the defensive boards, overpowered for much of their mutual time on the court by Andray Blatche.  Per SportVU data, Bosh had five defensive rebounding chances on the game (defined as the number of times a player was within 3.5 feet of an available rebound), and pulled down only two of them – Blatche got the other three, winning battles against the more accomplished veteran:

A very small single game sample, to be sure, but it was Bosh’s second consecutive game with trouble on the defensive glass.  He recovered just three of six defensive rebounding chances in Game 2, making him five-of-11 in the pair of games, and was caught out of position against the far less agile Kevin Garnett:

This is lazy boxing out by Bosh, and really the entire Heat team – no one picks up Teletovic darting in from the perimeter, and Bosh makes the worst possible choice between him and Garnett: neither.  This sort of thing has been too common for a Heat team predictably trying to coast their way through as much of the early rounds as they can get away with, as they’ve now collected just 52 of 76 available defensive rebounds over the past two contests, an unacceptable sub-70% number that would have ranked worse than the last-place team league-wide over the regular season.  They managed to survive Game 2 because the shooting variance went their way, but they had no chance with an even worse performance in Game 3 and a reversal of their shooting fortunes.

Their raw rebounding deficits from Game 3 have, historically, been quite difficult for teams to overcome in the postseason, particularly in the last decade.  Since 1986, courtesy of basketball-reference.com, a team has faced a defensive rebounding deficit of 12 (Miami’s from Saturday night) or more 153 times in a best-of-seven series and have won just six of these games, or slightly under 4%.  Since 2004, the number drops even further to a miniscule 1.3% (just one win versus 75 losses).  The numbers are slightly more favorable for their total rebounding discrepancy of 16, but even using this threshold instead, only just above 10% of the teams on the short end of such uneven rebounding battles have managed to win in the postseason over nearly the last 30 years.  It’s simple analysis, but the situation in this case requires nothing different; clearly, it’s a huge obstacle to win at such a major rebounding disadvantage in the postseason.

The immediate counter in the minds of many will likely be Miami’s typically bad rebounding numbers, and there’s no doubt they frequently give up an edge here (in fact, they gave up two such minus-12-or-worse defensive rebounding performances last postseason, one each to Chicago and Indiana – losing both games but, of course, winning both series).  But here’s the thing: Brooklyn, like the Heat, plays a lot of small minutes with Paul Pierce or others at the power forward spot, and are consequently among the handful of teams joining Miami among the league’s worst rebounding squads.  Both were in the NBA’s bottom five for offensive rebounding percentage on the year, as well as for total boards.  And given Miami’s athleticism advantage on the wings and the predominantly matching styles, it’s difficult to explain Brooklyn’s large advantage on the boards for the series so far.  It’s true that Jason Kidd has given Teletovic most of his time as the nominal power forward beside either Garnett or Blatche, but the European sharpshooter hardly qualifies as a “big” as far as boards go – the Nets were actually a hair worse overall as a rebounding team when he was on the court.  Blatche, meanwhile, hasn’t played a second with Garnett in the playoffs and is always the only true big on the court.  And while he only slightly moved the needle as a rebounder during the regular season, he’s been a menace against the Heat, gobbling a third of all available offensive boards.

The trend goes back to the regular season, too, where the Nets put up over two more offensive rebounds than the Heat per-48 over their four matchups, per NBA.com.  Brooklyn is now out-rebounding Miami 279-236 over their seven regular and postseason games, a convincing edge for two teams that were roughly similar in this department against other competition over the year.

Of course, the Heat have big edges in several other areas and are used to being at a disadvantage here, so there shouldn’t and won’t be any panic.  It’s also likely that their effort will see at least a decent spike, if not a large one, on the heels of their first defeat this postseason, and this Heat team has proven time and again that this is a very real element to keep in mind.  But Miami would be wise to address the issue right away rather than getting complacent or assuming the shooting disparity will naturally right itself (even if it likely will); the above winning percentages with such lackluster rebounding efforts throughout postseason history don’t bode well if the Heat lay another egg, and with a physically demanding series against Indiana now looking likely should they advance, Miami could do themselves a big favor by finishing off an inferior Brooklyn team in five games.  Fixing their issues on the glass might be the most controllable element they can adjust heading into Game 4 tonight, and it should get them on track for the Easter Conference Final we all had in mind at the beginning of the year.

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