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The Secret To Playoff Success In 2023: Offensive Rebounding

An undeniable quality of a good defensive team in the NBA is their ability to close out any given defensive possession with a rebound. A recent league-wide trend, however, is working to counteract that — by offenses emphasizing recovering their own misses for extra opportunities rather than getting back in the defensive transition.

In simple terms: teams are starting to realize that extra possessions in an offensive-minded NBA game are a life hack.

This is a relatively new trend, with most teams still opting to get back on defense rather than fight for an extra possession on the offensive glass, but it’s reared its head in the 2023 Playoffs as the deciding factor in most of these games.

Of the 14 play-in and playoff games played in the last week, 11 of them were decided by offensive rebounds and second-chance points, meaning that the winning team in those games absolutely dominated the offensive glass, won extra possessions out of it and tipped the scales in their favor because of it.

Only 2 teams won the possession battle and dominated on second-chance points but didn’t go on to win the game: The Raptors versus the Bulls and the Thunder versus the Timberwolves. We’ll get to those in a second. The only team to lose the offensive rebounding battle and win? The Miami Heat in game 1 versus the Milwaukee Bucks. And that one had some extenuating circumstances with Giannis Antetokounmpo getting injured in the 1st half.

Otherwise? The Lakers out-rebounded the Timberwolves 12-4 on the offensive glass and scored 17 second-chance points to the Timberwolves’ 6. The Hawks dominated the Heat in the 7-8 play-in by nabbing 22 offensive rebounds and scoring 26 second-chance points to the Heat’s 6. The Heat did the same against the Bulls in the play-in, nabbing twice as many offensive rebounds.

In Game 1’s, the Sixers destroyed the Nets, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and winning the second-chance battle 21-3. They also took 19 more shots than the Nets. The Knicks did much of the same, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds compared to the Cavaliers’ 11 and winning the second-chance battle 23-12. In one of the most exhilarating games of the playoffs so far, the Kings nabbed 17 offensive rebounds compared to the Warriors’ 9, with Domantas Sabonis grabbing 5 of those himself.

Last night, the Lakers bullied the Grizzlies in the middle and scored 22 second-chance points compared to Memphis’s 10. The Nuggets did much of the same to the Timberwolves. And Russell Westbrook grabbed 5 offensive rebounds for the Clippers in Game 1 against the Suns, 2 of which were in the final minute of the game, as LA dominated the offensive rebounding battle 15-6.

I regurgitate all that information to relay a point — the possession battle has become the common thread in these games. Winning extra possessions for your team matters — and the league has noticed.

The league median for offensive rebounding percentage was at 26.8% this season, according to Cleaning The Glass. That’s the highest percentage since the 2014-2015 season, where teams nabbed 28% of all potential offensive rebounds.

Most recently, the emphasis on the offensive glass has been used by teams who struggle to score in a half-court setting in an effort to buoy their offense. At the end of the day, more opportunities mean more chances to score and when you can’t score effectively already — winning the possession battle becomes even more crucial.

That’s why the leaderboard for offensive rebound percentage is littered with teams like this. Take, for instance, the Houston Rockets, who led the league in OREB% this season at 33.2%, per Cleaning the Glass. They were dead last in half-court offensive efficiency this year as well. Or the Raptors, who were the 3rd best offensive-rebounding team this season and boasted the 6th worst half-court offense. Or even the Grizzlies, ranking 5th in OREB% and 22nd in half-court efficiency.

But why do these teams still struggle? Why did the Rockets, Raptors, and Grizzlies dominate the offensive glass all season and not have the same impact as those 11 playoff teams who just followed a similar formula?

It all comes down to shooting.

The Rockets, Raptors, and Grizzlies are all bottom-10 3-point shooting teams this season. And they’re not that much better in the scramble, second-chance opportunity-type situations either.

Usually, with an offensive rebound, there’s a bit of commotion. The defense is scrambling to find a man and guard him and offenses have gotten increasingly good at relocating into open 3-point shots.

The Warriors are notorious for being back-breakers on these types of possessions. Draymond Green and Kevon Looney crash the offensive glass, the defense is scrambling, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, or even Andrew Wiggins relocate and it ends up in a very good, almost wide-open 3-point shot.

It happened at the end of Game 1 versus the Kings on this possession, but Wiggins couldn’t convert.

The Kings did much of the same in the game, like in this play where Keegan Murray can’t convert.

Of 25,052 shots after offensive rebounds this season, 10,039 of them were 3-pointers — accounting for 40.1% of all shots off offensive rebounds. That’s nearly 2% higher than normal possessions, according to a source with access to Second Spectrum data.

Of teams that take the most 3-point shots on second-chance opportunities? The Warriors and Knicks rank in the top 2, but the Warriors shoot nearly 5% better (38%) on those opportunities thanks to Curry, Thompson, and crew.

And these are ultimately the biggest backbreakers in the NBA. You play a good defensive possession, you can’t box out and because of that, you still get scored on in disastrous fashion.

Just ask the Nets.

Still, though, a considerable amount of offensive rebounds end up being tip-ins, putbacks, and/or fouls. Which is what the Lakers did to the Grizzlies on Sunday.

Or even the Knicks, who used offensive rebounding as a way to chew up the clock at the end of game 1 versus the Cavaliers.

But what makes emphasizing offensive rebounding such a tantalizing advantage is the 3-ball. And to go back to the Raptors, for a second, that’s a big reason they struggled this season.

This year, the Raptors shot 34.25% on 3-point shots coming as second-chance opportunities — good for 20th in the league.

Last season, the Raptors took the second-most amount of 3’s off of offensive rebounds and ranked #1 in 3-point percentage on those shots at a whopping 41%.

The same applies to the Grizzlies who took the most amount of 3’s as second-chance shots and knocked down 39% of them.

Now back to the 2023 playoffs and play-in.

There have already been 210 second-chance points through 8 games. 51 of those have been 3-pointers, only 20%. BUT… 36 of the 51 second-chance point 3-pointers made, came from the winning team.

There have been 54 3-pointers attempted off of offensive rebounds through those 8 games, in 5 of those games, the team that took more 3’s off of offensive rebounds, won.

That’s not to say that teams will all of a sudden recognize this trend and start jacking shots off of live rebounds in an attempt to boost their numbers — but it’s not not saying that?

In the end, you can still be a bad shooting team, dominate the offensive glass, and rely on tip-ins and putbacks to fuel your second-chance points efficiency. But also, if you’re a bad shooting team, offensive rebounds can just give you more kicks at the can. More opportunities to knock down your shots, no matter how much you struggle with it.

It’s the approach the Raptors and Grizzlies have taken the last few years, although to varying degrees of success.

And in the playoffs, when every possession matters, when momentum can switch on a dime, being able to generate more opportunities for your team to score becomes all that more important.

And if those opportunities can be 3-point shots that can completely break the back of an opposing defense? Then the more the merrier.

After every year of playoff basketball, pundits walk away with a few observations. A few years ago it was the revelation that you can go small, play 5-out and dominate offensively that way. And then later on, we realized that teams can just counter that by going extra big, and we re-remembered the importance of the big man.

In some ways, this new trend of crashing the offensive glass is a by-product of that. And the heightened emphasis on shooting 3-balls after an offensive rebound is sort of a metamorphosis of it all.

The game keeps evolving and re-evolving, shape-shifting, bringing back old trends but in newly imagined ways, inputting source data into the giant computer that is basketball, and then spitting out new information for us to digest.

These 2023 NBA Playoffs have embodied that thus far. And it’ll be interesting to see if the trend continues.

As for my advice on how to stop the trend? Box out.