The Cleveland Cavaliers are outrebounding opponents by a league-leading margin of 6.2 in the postseason, and their ascension from a less-than-formidable rebounding squad to paint juggernaut in the playoffs has been a catalyst for the team’s run to the NBA Finals.
The improvement stems in part from some well-timed lineup adjustments. Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson played all of 274 minutes together in Cleveland’s front court during the regular season, No. 47 among the Cavaliers’ two-man combinations. But the two already have played 240 minutes together in the postseason, and among tandems that have logged more than 150 minutes lead the league in rebound percentage (57) — grabbing 81.4 percent of defensive rebounds and 32.6 percent of offensive rebounds. Mozgov and Thompson have hoarded 47 percent — nearly half — of the team’s rebounds in the NBA Finals thus far.
But traditional (some might say primitive) rebounding statistics only paint one side of the canvas, leaving out context. SportVU added new painting brushes to the equation with their rebounding chance metric, which only takes into account players within three to five feet of a missed shot at the time it is rebounded, or those who legitimately had a chance to corral the rebound. Golden State has simply had fewer rebound chances this series and is grabbing a smaller percentage of those rebounds per chance than Cleveland.
This is surprising because:
- Throughout the playoffs, the Warriors have gobbled up nearly two more contested rebounds per game (17.6 to 15.9) than Cleveland.
- Golden State was a more dominant rebounding team all season, grabbing 141 more total rebounds than the Cavaliers during the first 82 games.
- The Warriors are averaging more points in the point and second-chance points in the NBA Finals than the Cavaliers.
So how is Cleveland dismantling Golden State on the glass in the NBA Finals, averaging 3.5 more offensive rebounds and 0.5 more defensive rebounds per game, all while scoring fewer buckets in the restricted area? It’s a matter of poor second-chance conversions and the shot clock.
The Cavaliers have attempted field goals late in possessions this postseason, leading all playoff teams in frequency of attempts taken with 4 to 0 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Golden State’s autonomy-focused, pace-and-space offensive approach allows its players to hoist attempts earlier on in the possession: 16.4 percent of the Warriors’ attempts come with 18 to 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock, while just 6.5 percent of the Cavaliers’ attempts are taken in the same window.
Golden State is shooting a tepid 29 percent from beyond the three-point arc, and with many of those attempts coming early in the shot clock while the team’s front-court players may be trailing the play and not set up in the low block, Cleveland has had a field day on the boards. That would also explain the disparity in contested rebounds this series.
Andrew Bogut was one of the league’s 25 best rebounders during the regular season but hasn’t been nearly as effective in the playoffs because of foul trouble, the flow of the offense working quicker and quicker, and having to match up with formidable front-court players like Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, and now Thompson and Mozgov. Thompson emerged as perhaps the game’s top offensive rebounder this season and has already grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, or 62 percent of Golden State’s total offensive rebounds this series. There’s also something to be said about presence. Mozgov is one of the game’s top rim protectors, and although he has fewer blocks than Iman Shumpert this series, he alters shots by merely being present in the area.
There’s reason to believe in Cleveland, but they’ll have to continue to decimate the Warriors on the glass to keep that dream afloat.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.