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Bourguet Breakdown: Solving the Suns' offensive rebounding issue vs. Pelicans

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 19, 2022

As you may have heard, the Phoenix Suns struggled with keeping the New Orleans Pelicans off the offensive glass in Game 1 of their first-round series. This is not a new area of concern for the Suns, being that it’s one of their few Achilles heels.

This isn’t a new issue in this particular matchup either; as we covered in our series preview, the Suns surrendered 58 offensive boards in four regular-season meetings. The Pelicans, meanwhile, ranked fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and third in second-chance points.

“They’ve had 88 second-chance points in four games,” coach Monty Williams said, looking ahead Game 1. “So for a defense that is as good as ours, to give up that many second-chance points to a team is something we’ve talked about, we’ve shown. Our guys are aware of it, now we gotta go out and do it.”

The Suns got the main job done by winning on Sunday, but they were unable to handle this specific task. If anything, it got worse. Phoenix gave up a whopping 25 offensive rebounds, leading to 29 second-chance points for the Pelicans.

“I think our defense was solid all around, but it’s just, we gotta get them dudes off the glass, man,” Deandre Ayton said after Game 1. “Can’t give them dudes life.”

All last week, the Suns talked about New Orleans’ dominance on the glass. They noted how the Pels started two bigs together, mentioned their mentality in crashing the boards and made it a point of emphasis. And yet, Game 1 had the players ready to watch film to figure out how they could fix this glaring problem area.

“They know what to expect, and it’s all in an effort to get better,” Williams said. “When we talk about rebounding and we give up that many offensive rebounds, there’s a reason why, and we gotta look at it. We can say one thing, but when you look at the film, it may be something totally different.”

So what should stand out from those 25 offensive rebounds in Game 1? For the latest Bourguet Breakdown, we’ll take a look at whether that number is really as bad as it seems, and what Phoenix can do to protect itself against this potential weakness.

Bad bounces for the Suns

None of this is meant to let the Suns off the hook, because 50-50 balls are a part of the game. But going through the film, that gaudy number of offensive rebounds was inflated by a few bad breaks.

For starters, some were only offensive rebounds in the most technical sense, since several were the result of Suns blocks that returned the ball to sender.

Chris Paul stripped Brandon Ingram and the ball fell right into Jonas Valanciunas’ lap. A tip from JV that the Suns ultimately secured counted as another. Blocks from JaVale McGee, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder added three more to the total:

A few long rebounds added to the count as well. You could argue the Suns needed to do a better job putting bodies on guys crashing from the perimeter, but in most of these cases, these are 50-50 balls that simply didn’t go Phoenix’s way, whether it was a long bounce or an unexpected airball:

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

This mad scramble of a possession with Valanciunas was a prime example. It’s hard to argue the Suns did anything wrong on this play; sometimes there are just weird sequences you can’t control in playoff games:

Give the Pelicans credit, too: They’re good at this. The 6-foot-11, 265-pound Valanciunas is a load in the paint, and even when Ayton sticks a body on him, there may just be plays where playoff physicality gives JV leeway to use his strength to his advantage:

With that being said, the Suns can’t simply chalk it up to “Wow, Valanciunas is strong!” and call it a day. They can still tangibly improve in Game 2 in a few respects.

Hit-first mentality

When Valanciunas finishes with 25 rebounds, including 13 on the offensive end, it’s easy to look at Ayton’s 9 boards and label him as the scapegoat. Boxing out has been a weakness of his at times, as he’s used to out-jumping or out-reaching opponents. Williams pointed out the surprising lack of three-second calls, but against a physical crasher like JV, that approach won’t fly.

“We have to hit him,” Williams said. “We have to get him off the glass and be physical. Obviously, it’s a team effort, but we have to have a hit-first mentality.”

True enough, there were some instances where DA got caught ball-watching and needed to be better about boxing out. Watch him below, where he fails to make contact and keep Valanciunas from barreling deeper into the paint. Ayton has to come up with the board on plays like these:

However, pinning it all on Ayton is unfair, especially since the Pelicans’ pick-and-roll action was often designed to get him out on the perimeter. With crafty ball-handlers who can pull up at any time like CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, DA did a great job hedging and switching on those screens.

The problem was trying to avoid getting caught in no-man’s land. When the Sun guarding the ball failed to recover to the ball-handler but was also unable to prevent the screener (usually Valanciunas) from crashing the offensive glass, Ayton was left in a difficult spot of trying to stop the dribbler, protect against the pocket pass and then also keep the rolling big off the boards.

“I think the bigs are caught in between coming over to help on the drive and staying with Valanciunas,” Williams said. “We have to do a better job of staying in front of the ball from the perimeter so the bigs can stay connected.”

“If I gotta sell out, I just know they gotta have my back,” Ayton said. “I can’t be in between, neither of us can be in between. We’re just gonna have to do what the coaches asked us and communicate and try to adjust when it gets out of hand like tonight on the O-board.”

Cam Johnson noted how the Pels added to the problem, keeping Phoenix off-balance by sending guys at random to crash. That makes it difficult to coordinate who needs to collapse to the paint to help out, but the “gang rebounding,” as Williams calls it, needs to improve.

“We gotta hit [Valanciunas] earlier, and then if your guy isn’t going to the glass, you gotta get in there and sandwich rebound,” he said.

Finding the right balance is easier said than done. Watch as Devin Booker, who has sneakily become one of Phoenix’s more physical rebounders, abandons his man to body-check Valanciunas…leaving his man, Herb Jones, free to fly in for the rebound:

Even a play like this, however, is better than the alternative…

Too much ball-watching

Before Game 1, Cam Johnson promised his mother 10 rebounds. Although he played well offensively, he came up with 1 board in 23 minutes.

“She was mad, first thing she said, she looked at me and said, ‘You promised me,'” Johnson said with a laugh. “So I gotta do a little bit extra for her tomorrow.”

Johnson isn’t alone in that, because he’s certainly not the only wing who needs to be more hands-on in closing out stops. The Pelicans got 17 extra shots and nearly 20 more possessions compared to Phoenix, and quite a few of those amounted to ball-watching while New Orleans’ guards and wings crashed from the perimeter.

“When you look around the league, boxing out has become a lost art,” Williams said. “When the shot goes up, everybody’s stargazing, you know what I mean? We’ve talked about it, and our guys understand it.”

Box-out data is imperfect, but according to NBA.com, the Suns ranked 18th during the regular season with 7.9 box-outs per game. In Game 1, they had only three.

In the clips below, watch as Johnson, Cam Payne, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges all get caught looking up as the player they needed to be boxing out blows right by them for a board:

“The thing is, it’s not the old high school practices where you can do real rebounding drills, so it’s only something that you can emulate in the game or feel in the game, and you can’t do any real contact like that in practice,” Booker said. “So we can stress it, but it has to be on our minds every possession.”

It’s not something the Suns can practice in the modern NBA, but they’re fully aware this issue goes a lot further than the bigs.

“That is our job, we’re a team,” Chris Paul said. “We’re not gonna grow overnight, you know what I mean? So we just gotta keep putting bodies on guys, boxing out, trying to do it as a collective. And it’s something that we knew going into the series. We’ll take the win, but we also understand, we’ll come in tomorrow and figure out how we can get better at that.”

Part of the problem stemmed from the arduous task of chasing McCollum and Ingram around screens. While Bridges helped limit McCollum to 9-of-25 shooting, and Crowder kept Ingram in check on 6-of-17 shooting, the effort required to stick with them resulted in a few plays where the shot went up and a few fatigued Suns naturally stood up, thinking the play was done.

“You just gotta get through it, fight through it and go help,” Bridges said. “Yeah, sometimes you’ll be tired and running around and then contest, be out there and start to leak out. But me personally, I gotta be better on that end of guarding somebody, it could be the whole shot clock or something, but also just going in and go help my teammate.”

That wasn’t always the issue. New Orleans involved Ayton in the pick-and-roll to free their scorers off Bridges and Crowder, but those switches put the Suns at a disadvantage on the glass.

“The other thing that hurts you with offensive rebounding is with CJ, a lot of times you’re up in the pick-and-roll because he can shoot the ball, so that takes your best rebounder away from the basket,” Williams said. “That wasn’t always the case, but there’s so many layers to the rebounding piece, you’re gonna give up something to take away something.”

In these examples, Ayton does his job in forcing a miss from the ball-handler off the screen, but Crowder and the two Cams don’t pick up the cutters:

“Obviously, [we’re] making it tough on their two primary scorers,” Booker said. “But the thing about shifting, it kind of puts you in a disposition for rebounding. So finding that balance of shifting off somebody, and then a lot of those guys are crashing every possession over there. So finding a way to be physical with them before they get in the paint.”

The good news for the Suns

Game 2 will be a good barometer for whether the Suns “hit-first mentality” actually translates into results, but even if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. Despite all the consternation over the rebounding and second-chance numbers, the Suns still won Game 1 by 11, led by as many as 23 and never trailed.

“You hold any NBA team to anywhere in the 30s from a shooting percentage standpoint, it’s a good thing, and then we held them to under 100 points,” Williams pointed out. “So certainly we have to get better at the defensive rebounding for us, but we still held them under 100 points, and that’s a good thing.”

The Pelicans are good at what they do. They creamed the Suns on the boards during the regular season, but that didn’t stop Phoenix from going 3-1 in those games. The Suns’ stifling first-half defense, holding New Orleans to 22.4% shooting, helped account for a lot of misses, and therefore, more rebounding chances.

Even better, when they did secure defensive rebounds, those turned into easy transition opportunities because the Pelicans had too many players hunting for O-boards in the paint. That helped Phoenix rack up 15 fast-break points despite not doing a stellar job on the defensive glass.

“Any time we get a stop, that’s the benefit,” Williams said. “We were -18 in possessions. If you cut that down to nine, those are nine more opportunities to get out and run, and maybe their 99 point total is 90.”

You take the good with the bad, and the Suns’ elite defense clearly outweighed that ugly offensive rebounding number. They’re still the vastly superior team, and if Game 1 was New Orleans’ best punch on the rebounding front, this could be a very short series.

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