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As the pregame timer ticked before Game 5 tipped off on Tuesday, both Brooklyn’s and Boston’s keys to victory were displayed on the floor.
On one half of the Barclays Center court, James Harden danced around the perimeter, practicing a flurry of side-step and step-back shots and pick-and-roll simulations. On the other, Celtics’ big man Tristan Thompson warded off smaller team trainers in a pregame warmup meant to simulate crashing the offensive glass.
The Nets haven’t only struggled to contain Thompson, who recorded nine offensive rebounds in Boston’s only win of the series in Game 3. Their roster composition has rendered the Nets vulnerable to big men like Thompson, like the Lakers’ Andre Drummond, like the Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic, and like the Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis, who each routinely pummeled the Nets in the paint during the regular season.
That roster composition is by design. The Nets are a small basketball team and became even smaller after banishing DeAndre Jordan to the end of the bench. The shrinkage allows the Nets to play faster, space the floor with a capable three-point shooter at the five and switch defenders on pick-and-rolls with the center defending a perimeter ball-handler.
The lack of size, however, was apparent in Game 3, when Thompson’s nine offensive boards created second-chance opportunities for hot Celtics shooters. Jayson Tatum scored 50, Marcus Smart hit five threes, Evan Fournier hit four, and Boston stole an unlikely win against an offensive juggernaut.
The Nets, though, found an answer in Game 4, holding Thompson to only three offensive rebounds (six boards total) in a series-shifting rout of the Celtics: Gang rebounding, led by the guards.
In Game 4, Kyrie Irving led all players with 11 rebounds, including a putback dunk and a tip-in off of a missed shot. Bruce Brown came off the bench and grabbed seven boards, and Joe Harris, who only grabbed two rebounds in Game 3, secured four in Game 4.
“I think for us one of the big things is that rebounding is a team effort for us. We don’t have that one guy that’s dominating the glass per se, but you can do it by committee and I think everybody’s gotta be able to come back,” Harris said at Nets shootaround on Tuesday. “We get more out of the guards, everybody coming back, obviously it’s sort of make sure that your guy isn’t crashing first, getting a hit, and if he’s not it’s a team effort, especially with somebody like Tristan. You’ve got to put multiple bodies on him just to limit him on the offensive glass and it will be the same thing going forward for us.”
Thompson, however, is the least of Brooklyn’s worries in their pursuit of a championship.
In the second round of the playoffs, the Nets will meet the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose 28 points and 11 rebounds per game embody his interior dominance. They’ll meet Brook Lopez, who has been shooting fewer threes and doing more damage in the paint. They’ll meet P.J. Tucker, who secured four offensive rebounds in Milwaukee’s closeout Game 4 win over the Heat. And they’ll meet Khris Middleton, the icy scorer who is averaging seven rebounds per game in the first round.
The Bucks were the league’s second-best rebounding team in the regular season and dominated the glass against the Heat in the first round. Miami entered the playoffs as the NBA’s second-worst team on the glass. The Bucks averaged a playoff-high 59 rebounds per game in their four-game sweep.
The Knicks, the playoffs’ second-best rebounding team, have managed 47 boards a game, and the Nets, who ranked 14th on the glass in the regular season, rank 10th in the playoffs.,
Thompson’s production, even if just for one loss on Brooklyn’s road to a championship, is a microcosm of a larger issue, and the Nets’ solution in Game 4 is going to be tested in future series.
“He can really affect games on the offensive boards, as we all know, with his physicality and toughness, and that’s his focus,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said of Thompson ahead of Game 5. “And so we have to match that focus and it can’t just be one guy. He’s the type of guy that’s going to push and shove and root you under the basket, and we don’t have a lot of guys that are as physical in their makeup as he is, so we need two or three or more guys down there, not just one guy.”
If the Nets survive a series against the Bucks, they’ll likely have to deal with Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers. And if they beat the Sixers, they could meet one of a number of strong rebounding teams out West, including the league-leading Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Lakers, home to Drummond, Anthony Davis, Montrezl Harrell, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma, who has reinvented himself as a nagging offensive rebounder this season.
“So it’s about habit-forming, it’s about the diligence to know the game plan and getting back on the glass and to help your teammates,” Nash continued. “If we are diligent with that thought process and that habit or that becomes a habit I think we can handle it. At least survive it. But if we’re not, we take it for granted, if we just watch the ball go up and don’t get back in numbers, if we aren’t physical, we’re just there, that’s when [players like Thompson] can have a big game.”