There's a basketball axiom that claims "rebounding wins championships."
For the defending NBA-champion San Antonio Spurs, that statement has proved to be true in this year's Western Conference finals against the Lakers, who have consistently dominated Coach Gregg Popovich's aging Spurs team on the backboards.
Except for Tim Duncan's steady rebounding, the Spurs have been outworked by the Lakers at retrieving missed shots. That was evident in the Lakers' 93-91 victory over San Antonio on Tuesday, which gave them a commanding 3-1 lead heading into tonight's Game 5. Despite Duncan's game-high 17 boards, the Lakers out-rebounded the Spurs, 46-37, with Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant each grabbing 10. And thanks to the Lakers' overall edge in rebounding, they were able to control the basketball for crucial stretches of Game 4, especially in the fourth quarter.
So, how are the Lakers' getting this done?
Although the Lakers lack a monster rebounder, they have a group of hard-working big men willing to bang bodies underneath the basket.
In four playoff games against the Spurs, Lamar Odom is averaging a team-high 10 rebounds, followed by Gasol, who is averaging nearly eight, while Bryant and Vladimir Radmanovic each are grabbing nearly six.
Reserves Luke Walton and Ronny Turiaf are also averaging six more rebounds per game off the bench.
Every time a shot goes up, the Lakers are boxing out San Antonio players around the basket to grab the rebound themselves or open up an opportunity for a teammate.
And with the height and long arms of players like Gasol, Odom, Radmanovic and even Turiaf, the Lakers have built a high wall near the rim on missed shots, which has prevented smaller San Antonio players from getting cheap rebounds.
Since the Spurs are a perimeter team and normally run their offense through Duncan in the post, their secondary rebounders must be on the move to make plays.
But Bryant, Fisher and Radmanovic have been mobile enough to help the Lakers get those rebounds.
To combat this problem, San Antonio doesn't have many options.
The first would be to send more players to the basket to help rebound. But this is a dangerous tactic against the Lakers, who also have speed throughout their lineup and can run. Another option for the Spurs would be to give more minutes to veteran forward Kurt Thomas, who has a knack for getting key rebounds in the playoffs. Thomas did not play much in Game 4.
But Thomas is not much of a scoring threat and the Spurs know that they need to score points to keep up with the Lakers at Staples Center.
Summary: Popovich is one of the finest coaches in the NBA, but he's in a tough spot trying to get San Antonio to increase its rebounding intensity. That's because after getting past Phoenix and New Orleans in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Spurs do not seem to have enough jump to keep up with the fresher Lakers over a seven-game series.
But the conference finals are not over. San Antonio will not go down without a struggle, so expect the Spurs to give their best rebounding effort of the series in tonight's game. Unfortunately for Popovich, that still might not be enough to win.