Why the 2020 NBA finals trophy will be made of glass

Jimmy Butler shows some emotion after his dominating Game 3 performance. Courtesy of Douglas P. DeFelice via Getty Images.

After the Sunday night tilt between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, one thing was clear: the Heat would not be swept. In the 2020 NBA finals, they began the night down two games to none, hoping to avoid a historically insurmountable 3-0 deficit. Even teams that fall behind two games in a series only come back to win a mere 93.6 percent of the time. The only teams in the last 18 years to have been swept in an NBA Finals series are both Lebron James-led Cavalier teams (2007 vs San Antonio, 2018 vs. Golden State). Holding a comfortable 2-0 lead, and with the Heat’s two leading scorers from the previous series sidelined with injuries (Heat stars Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic shot a combined .525 versus Boston), it was looking promising for the now-Laker James, who had only ever been on the wrong side of Finals sweeps, to blow this series wide open and pour a bucket-full of lighter fluid on the perennial GOAT debate.

Enter Jimmy Butler. The 31-year-old veteran out of Marquette posted only the third 40-point triple-double (James has one of the other two) in NBA finals history and carried the Heat to a 115-104 victory in Game 3, being involved in 73 of the Heat’s 124 points in the contest. In a postgame interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler was asked how his team was able to pull off this win. Without missing a beat, Jimmy “Buckets” delivered a candid response: “We rebounded.” 

Butler continued, “That’s going to be the key going forward. We [have to] keep those guys off the boards and get those second chance points.”

He could not have been more right…and more wrong. No doubt about it, one of the keys for the rest of this series will be rebounding. But if the Heat manage to stay alive in this series and push it to six or seven games, they will have done so not because of their rebounding prowess, but in spite of it.

In the 2020 NBA bubble, 11 out of the 14 playoff series have been won by teams that outrebounded their opponents. The Heat are already a notable exception to this trend, as they lost the rebounding battle against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and found ways to take the series anyway (thank Tyler Herro for that one). But the Lakers are not the Celtics, not by a longshot. The Lakers took the first two games of the Finals while dominating the glass handily with margins of 54-36 in Game 1 and 44-37 in Game 2. Even in the third matchup, the Lakers took the proverbial “L” but managed to keep the rebounding margin at 43-37 in their favor. So when Butler attributed the Game 3 win to his team’s ability to control the glass, I genuinely had no idea what he was looking at.

We can break this down even further. In basketball, especially in the NBA where the margin for error is so thin, second chances on the offensive side of the ball are crucial; Butler alluded to this in his postgame interview. In Sunday night’s game, the Heat were only able to grab 3 offensive rebounds, a number that pales in comparison to the 11 offensive rebounds the Lakers had that night, and the whopping 16 they had the game before. Now, in fairness to the Lakers, they have been a stellar offensive rebounding team all year, especially in the postseason, a fact that is incredibly evident when you take a look at their team Offensive Rebound Percentage (ORB%).

ORB% is a metric that estimates the percentage of available offensive rebounds that players grabbed while on the court. The way to calculate this is a bit more involved:

(Offensive rebounds/(Offensive Rebounds + Opponent Defensive Rebounds))

The reason ORB% is so useful is because it helps teams gauge how often they are getting opportunities at second chance points. If a team has an ORB% of 0, they are not grabbing a single available rebound. If a team posts an ORB% of 100, that means they grabbed every possible offensive board. Out of teams that played more than four games this postseason, the Lakers led with an ORB% of 25.9, grabbing a little over one out of every four of their own shots back. On this same list, the Heat rank 10th with a tad over 18 percent. This disparity in rebounding is one of the reasons why the Lakers are able to lead in playoff point differential per 100 possessions. This is just the net difference in points for and against a team per every 100 possessions. The Lakers stand at +7.3 while the Heat play catch-up again with a score of +3.3. 

The fact of the matter is the Lakers are a larger and more physical team, and so, while it is that much more impressive that the Heat were able to steal a game when two of their stars were out and 20-year-old phenom Tyler Herro shot 6-18 from the field, they must know this is not a sustainable way to win. Erik Spoelstra knows this too. The Heat head coach talked about how Butler bailed out his team in what he called a “very desperate urgent game” at his postgame press conference. This is a Heat team that forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter of Game 3 and were only up by three at the end of the period. Missed opportunities have been the theme through the first three games of the NBA Finals for this team. The question for them now is, do they bank on a few more historic performances from their star players? Do they get their team to crash the boards on both sides of the floor to even the scales of the rebounding battle? Or do Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Lakers put together two more wins with their overpowering work off the glass and ride that to another ring for their story-book franchise? If I were a betting man, I’d go with the latter.

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