BOSTON — Riding high and fully rested in the final weeks of the regular season, the Celtics players were hesitant to name any weaknesses they wanted to shore up for the postseason. To a man, though, none could deny that defensive rebounding was one area in which they wanted to improve.
Four games into their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics have shown signs of accomplishing that mission. Even as Josh Smith leads all playoff participants with 14.3 rebounds per game, the Celtics outrebounded the Hawks in two of those four games, cutting off one of Atlanta’s primary ways of generating offense against the Celtics during the regular season.
The Celtics are averaging 43.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs, up from a league-low 38.8 rebounds per game in the regular season. Only two playoff teams grabbed fewer defensive boards per game in the regular season, and only two teams overall — the Bobcats and the Warriors — had a worse rebounding differential than Boston’s minus-4.4 mark.
The improvement starts with defense, as most things do with the Celtics. Kevin Garnett posted double-digit rebounds in three of the first four games, but the rebounding success has as much to do with perimeter players like Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, though, as it has to do with post players like Garnett.
“I think part of it is, we’re stopping a lot of dribble penetration,” Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said after Sunday’s Game 4, when the Celtics recorded 37 rebounds to the Hawks’ 40 in the game. “The more we stop dribble penetration, the more our bigs can stay at home. The more our bigs can stay at home, the better they can rebound.
“It’s so connected for us with Rondo and Avery and Ray and Paul. When they can keep guys out of the paint, it allows our bigs to be able to do their job. When our bigs are rotating defensively all night, they’re not going to be in the right spot and we’re going to get crushed on the glass.”
While the rebounding progress is an encouraging sign for the Celtics, it should be taken with a grain of salt. The Hawks had their own issues on the glass in the regular season, posting the eighth-lowest per-game rebounding average in the league, with center Al Horford and his reliable nine rebounds per game absent for most of the season. Horford, Smith and Zaza Pachulia have all missed time during the series, giving Boston another advantage on the boards.
Neither the Hawks’ style of play nor their pace — the ninth-lowest rate of shots per 100 possessions in the NBA during the regular season — lends itself to a high number of rebounding opportunities. Like the Celtics, the Hawks are a notorious one-and-done shooting team, choosing not to crash the offensive glass in exchange for getting back on defense. Add in a reinvigorated Celtics defense that has held the Hawks to 38 percent shooting in the playoffs, and it is little surprise Boston has seen an uptick in its rebounding stats.
The key with all of these indicators, though, is that the Celtics have still gone out and actually rebounded. No amount of injuries or statistical explanations would matter if the Celtics did not capitalize, and they have. Against the Hawks, the Celtics have turned a weakness into a wash, and that has been enough for them to take a commanding lead in the series.