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NBA: Finals-Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks

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As playoffs approach, rebounding becomes a concern once again for the Phoenix Suns

The Suns are good at center, but the forwards really need to step up in the playoffs on defensive boards

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Phoenix Suns rebounding weakness became even more pronounced when the loss of second-best rebounder Dario Saric (torn ACL) eventually cost them a championship against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee leveled up against the Suns in the last three games of that series, grabbing 78% of all available defensive boards (Suns misses). But even worse, they grabbed 34% of all the available offensive boards (their own misses) — leading to 15 points per game coming on ‘second chance’ opportunities. Quite the disparity, and a killer for a Suns team that shot the ball well but not quite good enough.

Focusing on the last three clutch games, the Suns put up much better shooting numbers (50% FG, 38% 3P compared to 47% FG, 28% 3P) but the Bucks won because they got key live-ball turnovers (15.7 fast break points per game), overwhelmed the Suns on their own misses (15.0 second-chance points per game) and absolutely lived at the free throw line (19.3 frees throw points per game).

The differential in those three areas added up to almost 20 points per game, contributing mightily to their +5.8 average scoring margin in those games.

Clearly, the Suns wanted to shore up those areas this season in case of a rematch, or if another team tried to re-create the Bucks winning formula of crashing the boards on both ends.

During this all-time-best regular season in 2021-22, the Suns have definitely improved. They’ve improved their offense (9th to 3rd), improved their defense (6th to 2nd) and even (somehow) improved their clutchiness. They have the league’s best home record, road record, clutch record and record against playoff teams. They are primed for another deep run.

However, some of those weaknesses from the Finals are still present.

In the wake of Dario’s injury, the Suns added more pure rebounding depth at backup center this year with JaVale McGee. Then when Frank Kaminsky went down, they added Bismack Biyombo. Both centers should be able to help the Suns survive the non-Ayton minutes against a team with Milwaukee’s bad intentions.

However, the Suns still have the same group of forwards as a year ago in Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Torrey Craig. The Suns only play one big at a time, so these guys are key to winning the rebounding battle yet none of them are great at the rebounding thing.

  • Jae Crowder — 17.7% defensive rebound rate
  • Torrey Craig — 17.3%
  • Cameron Johnson — 13.7%
  • Mikal Bridges — 9.9%

Cam Johnson is 5th among Suns regulars in defensive rebounding percentage, and would be 4th on a night Torrey doesn’t get into the game.

By comparison, the Memphis Grizzlies — the Suns likeliest Conference Finals opponent — are the best rebounding team in the league and have 9 regular rotation players with a defensive rebound rate of 13.5 or higher.

The Bucks — the likeliest winner of the East — are the league’s second-best rebounding team and have 6 regular rotation players with a defensive rebound rate of 13.5 or higher.

When the Suns lose games, they get killed on the boards. They are actually 11th overall in rebounds per game this year (45.2 per game) and average 0.7 more boards than their opponents this season, but the losses have been whoppers: they’ve been out-rebounded in 16 of 17 losses and get beat by an average of 8 boards per game.

Memphis and Milwaukee, you wonder? The Suns are 2-3 against them this season (1-2 vs. Grizz, 1-1 vs. Bucks), and have been out-rebounded by 9 boards per game!

The Suns diversified their offensive attack this year, getting more shot-creating from Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson. That reduces the chance of an opposing defense controlling the Suns offense by bottling up Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cameron Payne. And they’ve improved their overall defense this year.

But rebounding is still a question mark against the likes of rebounding hordes Grizzlies and Bucks. Just a little down the ‘scare’ list, the Jazz and Warriors are both better than the Suns in rebounding this year too.

It’s gonna take a village, folks. That’s an area to watch, if you’re worried about the Suns winning their first NBA championship.

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