Team Offensive Rebounds and the Small Big Picture

“I was looking at the stat sheet and it says they had 21 second-chance points,” LeBron James said after Game 1.  “I don’t really understand how that’s possible with only six offensive rebounds.  I’m very good at math…”

Unprompted and perplexed, James continued.

“The only way you can get a second chance point is if you get an offensive rebound, right? Am I correct?” he asked a throng of media members.  “So even if you hit a three-pointer off six offensive rebounds, that’s still only 18 points.  So I don’t understand how that works.”

Taking the room’s collective silence as confirmation of his rhetorical query, James went quiet as another question was posed.  But he couldn’t let the matter rest.

“Yeah, that’s kind of weird.  I don’t understand this,” James maintained, now audibly amused.  “Am I right or am I wrong? Am I right? Yeah, okay.  That’s crazy.”

Wrong!

As ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, our own Andrew Lynch and many other insightful analysts pointed out thereafter, team rebounds can account for second-chance points, too.  And according to the league’s own play-by-play data, the Spurs collected a whopping seven offensive rebounds of the aggregate variety.  Combined with the six individual offensive rebounds that James referenced initially, San Antonio had 13 opportunities to pile up those 21 extra points.

Team rebounds, obviously, are easy to overlook.  There’s no concrete definition to be easily found; basically, a team rebound is when a shot is missed and neither team is able to gain control of the ball before it goes out of bounds.  They aren’t as valuable as conventional rebounds because they yield dead-ball situations and a chance for both teams to reset, but can nonetheless have a major impact on a game’s outcome.

Miami learned the hard way on Thursday.  It’s fair to say combining San Antonio’s six offensive rebounds with those additional seven possessions is a better indicator of the Heat’s true performance on the defensive glass than the basic box score.  Whether or not that supports the much-presumed theory that the Heat are too vulnerable in that department to play small against the Spurs as often as they’d like, though, is another thing entirely.

The shallow end is always deeper than it seems in basketball.  And considering Miami’s small-ball lineups are so important to the team’s offensive identity, this quietly influential aspect of Game 1 deserves more study and scrutiny.  Simply, if the Heat defensive rebound – by corralling the ball or forcing it out of bounds off the opponent – as poorly as San Antonio’s second-chance feast suggests, it will be difficult for Erik Spoelstra to play those sweet-shooting, space-making quintets as often as he’d like.  And in that case, Miami will have to struggle even harder to swim from the whirlpool it created by losing at home on Thursday.

The tape never lies.  Re-watching all of Game 1 to assess the means of the Spurs’ seven documented team offensive rebounds, one thing was immediately clear: they didn’t have seven team offensive rebounds.  Play-by-play analysis from both the NBA and ESPN incorrectly credited San Antonio with offensive rebounds after a Spur missed the front-end of two free throws; the same was true for Miami.  In reality, San Antonio registered five team offensive rebounds, one of which came after Chris Bosh blocked Tony Parker’s layup attempt directly into the stands.

How many of the Spurs 21 second-chance points did they score via possessions following a team offensive rebound? Seven, a number the Heat can live with.  The bigger issue echoes James’ postgame confusion – San Antonio’s flawless success rate on misses they were able to actually grab and keep in play.  The Spurs scored 14 points via their more conventional extra opportunities, capitalizing on each and every one of their six attempts.  It’s not 21 points on six offensive rebounds, LeBron, but it’s awful from a Miami perspective nonetheless.

But it’s not their diminutive nature that did in the Heat.  Miami was small – with James and Battier/Miller occupying the forward spots – on five of San Antonio’s six offensive rebounds, and on just two of those occasions could a case be made that a bigger player next to James would have changed things.  An air-ball, a long rebound and Dwyane Wade falling asleep on Kawhi Leonard say nothing of the Spurs’ size advantage.  That’s just basketball.  Sometimes things work out for the other team.

And just as those isolated incidents swinging Miami’s direction in the future would spell an advantage for the Heat, so would likely more floor-time for the units that made them such an offensive juggernaut during the regular season.  Good thing, then, that those four caroms that ended up San Antonio team offensive rebounds had nothing to do with a size discrepancy, either.

The Heat were playing big with two traditional post players during three of the four instances in which neither team could corral a Spurs miss.  And the one time they weren’t was a missed layup in transition for San Antonio; if anything, the sacrificed girth should have helped matters.

21 second-chance points is a huge amount for any team in the NBA, let alone one like the Spurs so typically averse to offensive rebounding.  They averaged just less than half that Game 1 total during the regular season, and rank ninth among playoff teams in the same category with 12.2 points per game.  San Antonio is far too good at everything else for Miami to consistently overcome a reputed Spurs weakness proving exactly otherwise.  The Heat can’t win this series if this surprising trend continues.

But it’s crucial Miami preaches process over result with regard to the defensive glass.  It’s easy to look at the box score, have your eyes drawn to the right-most corner and surmise the bigger Spurs pounded the Heat into all those crucial extra points.  And digging a bit deeper, snap judgements come even more quickly.  “Seven team offensive rebounds! Play Haslem! Free Bird!” But size wasn’t the issue for Miami; focus, fight and the simple bounce of the ball were the real agents behind the Heat’s struggles to rein in San Antonio misses.

And against a team that’s intent on shrinking the floor to stop James at all costs, that’s encouraging news.  The long-ball is more important than ever for Miami in this series, and shooters like Miller and Battier can’t play big minutes if physical stature limits their net impact.  It didn’t on Thursday.  For the Heat to have the best chance to win Game 2, Spoelstra and company must realize it.

*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.

Jack Winter