Film Session: Bulls Offensive Rebounds

CHICAGO – Erik Spoelstra has now addressed the media twice since the Miami HEAT lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Chicago Bulls. In each instance, he provided quote upon quote about the team losing focus in the third quarter as they surrendered extra possessions to the Bulls after already forcing them into poor shots.

“Those effort plays, the second chance opportunities, really deflated us and we lost our concentration for a few brief possessions on the offensive end and we didn’t execute as well as we could,” Spoelstra said.

He wasn’t saying that Chicago overpowered the HEAT on the boards, or that they uncovered some weakness unknown to the rest of the league. The Bulls were a Top-5 team by offensive rebounding percentage in the regular season and that number translated into each meeting with Miami. Nothing that came at the HEAT Sunday evening was unexpected.

What made Miami look the victim of shock and awe was the significant amount of luck at play.

The Bulls grabbed 29.4 percent of all available offensive rebounds this season. In Game 1, they grabbed over half. They scored 1.11 points per extra possession, gained from a rebound, in the first 82 games. Last night they scored 1.63.

Even if Chicago had a significant size and length advantage – and at times they did because Spoelstra played a small lineup – those rates would be as unsustainable as LeBron James hitting 50 percent of off-the-dribble pullup three-pointers in a playoff series.

Put another way, play the same game again, with the Bulls earning the exact same shots and the HEAT positioning themselves the same way, and there’s a small chance that Chicago finds the same level of success. There’s only so many times you can roll an eight on an eight-sided die.

Most of this comes down to bounces, the 50-50 balls coaches refer to that, in many cases are closer to 25-75 balls. You might say, well, the HEAT have professional rebounders and that should be able to read where a ball will go based on trajectory, but in a strange turn of events, they actually hurt themselves in that area by playing such good defense. The Bulls were often so out of sorts on offense, forcing awkward shots, that the ball would hit the front of the rim and go right back into the hands of the shooter, or a baseline floater would somehow bounce off the thick part of the iron and careen away at a 90 degree angle.

Sometimes, you just can’t know. And the only way to know how unpredictable circumstances were is to watch, with some helpful slow-motion thrown in.

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“Virtually every way you could get an offensive rebound, they got it. It wasn’t necessarily Rose’s penetration, a lot of times it was from us not keeping our bodies in front of what, for whatever reason we were on the side of them,” Spoelstra said. “A lot of times it was a block out. Three of them were shots where we didn’t block out our own man who shot it.”

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After watching those possessions a few times through, the fickleness of the 19-offensive board statistic starts to come through. Joakim Noah attempts a scoop shot from behind the backboard, hits the bottom of the rim and the ball bounces right back into his hands? Offensive rebound. Derrick Rose takes an off-dribble jumper, misses the rim completely and the ball falls right to Carlos Boozer. There’s another. The long rebounds that trickled out to the three-point line for backbreaking threes count as well.

Before we venture too far down the road of dismissal, the HEAT were also out of position on many of those possessions, with strange bounces only compounding the issue. For every time they were victims of misfortune, weakside defenders were standing and watching, with nary the intent to put a body on anyone. For every shot that bounced straight down to the floor to be tipped around, Taj Gibson was allowed a free pass to slice through the lane for a board. When the ball trickled out to the line, no closeouts were made.

The effort level was low, and as Spoelstra indicated over and over again, mistakes repeated themselves.

Where this becomes an unfixable problem, a thought much of the reactionary narratives clung to after the game, is a mystery. A team with Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony and LeBron James along its frontline can’t correct its angles inside? The backcourt can’t get back to blocking out jump shooters and monitoring the perimeter on rebounds as it did when so concerned with Ray Allen in the Boston series?

“It’s just mental focus,”Bosh said. “And that’s something we can fix. We just have to man up to the mistakes, look at it, be like, ‘OK, this is what we have to do.’”

“We have to find a way to get bodies on people and just do a better job of doing that early,” Anthony said. “Because being one step late is tough when you have guys that are so aggressive going to the glass.”

If the HEAT make those corrections and play the same defense, they’re playing the same defense that held the Bulls to 37.8 percent shooting on first-attempts. Fix the brain and the rebounds will follow. And if they do, the issue becomes less the team being outworked in the paint, and more the team that’s best offense, by far, came in post-rebound scrambles.