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What to make of the Phoenix Suns’ rebounding deficit to the Pelicans ahead of Game 2

The Pelicans dominated the boards in Game 1. How will the Suns respond and adjust in Game 2?

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns
Far too often, this was how many of the Pelican’s possessions ended on Sunday night: Jonas Valančiūnas outstretching and outmuscling the Suns’ wings for the rebound
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Box scores tell us a story. But quite often, what they tell us is not the entire story. Game 1 of the Phoenix Suns’ first-round matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans was a perfect illustration of this dichotomy.

The numbers tell us that the Suns won Sunday night’s game with ease, as they never trailed on the night and maintained a lead of at least 5 points from the 2nd quarter onwards. But those that watched Game 1 would tell a different story, of how the Pelicans cut a 23-point lead early in the third to 8 by the end of the quarter and continued fighting late into the 4th quarter. If it were not for Chris Paul’s 19-point explosion in the final quarter, Game 1 could have ended entirely differently.

So what went wrong for the Suns in Game 1? Well, looking at the numbers again, the rebounding disparity jumps out of the box score. The Pelicans out-rebounded the Suns 55-35, which included grabbing 25 offensive rebounds compared to the Suns' mere 5 offensive boards. This in turn explains the difference in second-chance points, as the Pelicans outscored the Suns 29-7 in that department.

Suns’ center Deandre Ayton spoke of his frustration over this disparity after the game.

“I think our defense was solid all around,” Ayton said. “But we have to get them dudes off the glass, man. We can’t give them dudes life.”

“We just got to work on that glass part, that’s it.”

Ayton describing the Suns’ defense as “solid” barely does justice to the team’s efforts. The Suns suffocated the Pelicans in the first half, holding them to merely 34 points on a paltry 22.4% from the field. The Pelicans did turn this around in the second half, scoring 65 points on 54.8%, but in this separation of the two halves, we can begin to see why the rebounding margin swung so heavily in the Pelicans’ favor.

In the first half alone, the Pelicans hauled in 15 offensive rebounds, with their veteran big man Jonas Valančiūnas grabbing 9 by himself. But in the second half, the Pelicans only had 9 offensive rebounds, with Valančiūnas snagging only 4.

On the surface, this suggests that the Pelicans were not as dominant on the glass in the second half, but in reality, the Pelicans grabbed 42.9% of their missed shots, versus 39.5% in the first half.

Now obviously, more missed shots inherently mean more opportunities to rebound the ball. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a team shooting so poorly will get more offensive rebounds, especially a team that is as highly talented in this regard as the Pelicans are, who were 3rd this season in offensive rebounding.

After practice on Monday, Suns’ coach Monty Williams pointed out other aspects of the rebounding disparity that the numbers don’t tell.

“There were a few times where the ball just bounced [weirdly], it was a weird bounce,” Williams said. “There were a few possessions where they got like three or four offensive rebounds in one possession... it doesn’t look great, [25 offensive rebounds], but there were some of them where it was just like a ‘tap, tap, tap’ and it was 4 [offensive rebounds] in one possession.”

It’s context like Williams described above that can’t quite be quantified through the box score, that the offensive rebounds grabbed without contest are not the same in their value as the repeated tap-ins and putback attempts that are highly contested.

The latter is something that the Suns simply cannot cut out completely, as those tap-ins and putback attempts are Valančiūnas’ bread and butter, and the players responsible for boxing him out (Ayton and McGee) will be helping on the player who is driving to the rim in most cases.

Gang rebounding is one way to contest Valančiūnas’ advantage in the paint and will certainly need to be emphasized for the rest of the series. But gang rebounding has its drawbacks, as it prevents the wings from getting out on the break and creating open looks in transition and semi-transition. Additionally, gang rebounding can lead to the opposition’s shooters (McCollum and Ingram in this case) being left unattended on the perimeter for their big man (Valančiūnas in this case) to tap the ball out, giving them the option to take an open three or reset the offense.

So while Williams did note that the team’s collective effort on the glass must step up in Game 2, he focused as well on other ways to mitigate the Pelican’s advantage.

“If we can control the ball initially on the perimeter, then our bigs don’t have to give ground,” Williams said. “[We] just have to have a higher awareness of [Valančiūnas] on the glass.”

“We got to hit [Valančiūnas] earlier and then if your guy’s going to the glass, you got to get in there and sandwich the rebound.”

Williams’ last point will be the biggest conundrum for the Suns. While the Pelicans’ guards C.J. McCollum and Herb Jones were able to crash and grab 3 offensive rebounds each, the Suns were able to take advantage of the Pelicans’ aggression by getting out on the break, outscoring New Orleans 15-2 in fastbreak points.

All in all, the Suns will surely come into Game 2 with an increased effort and focus on the glass, with the forwards Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, and Torrey Craig looking to improve on their pitiful combined total of 2 rebounds. But just as Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors proved during their championship runs, the rebounding battle is not always as indicative of how the game will end.