Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart have led the gang-rebounding effort for the Celtics.

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Tomase: Are Celtics actually a really good rebounding team all of a sudden?

John Tomase
October 27, 2017 - 1:38 pm
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Of all the things I didn't expect to say about the Celtics -- particularly after Gordon Hayward's season-ending injury -- the following might top the list.

So far they've been an outstanding rebounding team.

This was supposed to be an incurable Achilles heel even with Hayward. The Celtics basically haven't rebounded well since the days of the original Big Three. They got killed on the boards under Doc Rivers, who prioritized racing back on defense over crashing the offensive glass, and they've gotten killed on the boards under Brad Stevens, thanks to a roster featuring finesse big men like Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk.

With the exception of the 2015-16 season, when they ranked sixth in total rebounds, the Celtics have placed in the bottom half of the league in rebounding virtually every season since Larry Bird retired in 1992. During the heyday of Bird, Parish and McHale, the Celtics finished in the top three in rebounding seven out of 10 seasons. Since 2000, they've averaged 21st in the league.

They finished 27th in rebounding just last year, when they earned the No. 1 seed and reached the Eastern Conference Finals despite being outrebounded by the Bulls, Wizards and Cavs by an average of 45-38 in 18 games.

But this year has brought surprising change. On Friday night, against one of the longest teams in the league, the Celtics dominated the Bucks in a 96-89 victory.

They outrebounded Milwaukee, 45-35, and limited Milwaukee to just two offensive rebounds, continuing an encouraging trend that has seen the Celtics rank fifth in defensive rebounding percentage at 81.5.

That's a far cry from the Eastern Conference Finals, when the Cavaliers averaged over eight offensive rebounds a game as part of a trend that saw the Celtics allow the most second-chance points per game (14.3) in the conference, trailing only Oklahoma City overall.

So what has changed? The Celtics have practiced the gang-rebounding mantra that Stevens preaches, with seven players averaging between four and nine rebounds a game. The biggest difference makers have been guards Terry Rozier (6.0) and Marcus Smart (5.7), who have effectively crashed the defensive glass to limit opponents to one-and-dones.

Also making an impact is rookie Jayson Tatum, who went for a double-double in his debut and is pulling in 6.6 boards a game alongside athletic wing Jaylen Brown (6.4).

Big man Al Horford is averaging 8.8 rebounds, which would be his best output in five years. Point guard Kyrie Irving is at 4.0, which would be a career high.

Add a combined nine rebounds a night from reserve big men Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, and this really has been a top-to-bottom effort.

It has also only been five games, so of course all kinds of caveats are in order. But just watching the way Baynes clears space, Brown and Tatum are stout with their box-outs, and Rozier and Smart assault the defensive glass, this actually feels sustainable.

And considering how much offensive and defensive punch they've lost without Hayward, the Celtics need every advantage they can get. Maybe rebounding will actually be one of them.

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