By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Rebounding has been the Achilles’ heel of this Boston Celtics team since day one of the regular season. Thanks to an undersized front line and a propensity by Brad Stevens to go small with his lineups, the green have been a bottom-five squad in the NBA for both offensive and defensive rebounding all year. Merely holding their own against opponents on the boards is considered a moral victory for the Celtics most nights, as they rely on their offensive versatility and other strengths to lead them to wins.
That game plan shifted though during their showdown on Monday night against the Wizards. Brad Stevens changed things up early in the first half by going with a huge front line of Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller off the bench. Both bigs attacked the offensive glass early for some easy putback and second chance opportunities.
The move was a preemptive strike by Stevens against a Wizards team that had pushed Boston around on the glass in their last three matchups this season. Collectively, Washington out-rebounded Boston by 32 boards (140-108) in those contests, setting the stage for a shifted philosophy last night.
Zeller and Olynyk set the tone early in the paint, but the rest of their teammates quickly followed suit. By the end of the night, nine Celtics had offensive rebounds, leading to a season-high 20 second chance opportunities for the green on the glass in the 110-102 win at the TD Garden. That wasn’t just the highest total of the season for Boston, it was the most offensive rebounds in a regular season game since 2008 for the franchise.
“It was great,” Al Horford explained. “Kelly was getting in there. I think what really changed for us was when Tyler came in the game early on and he was just very aggressive, and he got a few offensive rebounds. He kind of set the tone at that point. And then it just kept happening.”
“Guys were just wanting the ball and guys were hustling,” Isaiah Thomas added. “Not even just the rebounds, it was the loose balls. We were on the floor first, we were getting to every loose ball first. Usually when we do that, we end up winning those games.”
Thomas was dead on in his assessment, as the Celtics improved to 22-2 on the season when they win the rebounding battle. Their overall edge last night on the glass (54-39) was their second biggest rebounding margin of the season, easing the effect of a poor shooting night overall (42.6 percent from the field).
The strong work on the glass helped Boston build up to a 20-point lead that forced the Wizards to go small late and also allowed enough of a cushion to withstand a late offensive drought.
“We tried to play big, obviously, and then they went really small so you’re going to get some offensive rebounds when they were really small late in the third and fourth quarter,” Brad Stevens said. “But I thought that Tyler (Zeller) helped set that tone the way that he was going to the glass for us in the first half and I thought that was a big part of tonight’s game. I mean, when they’re small you have to be able to attack them in different ways, and I thought we did a decent job of it until the last three or four minutes.”
The Celtics also did strong work in the paint defensively as well, grabbing 81 percent of all defensive rebounds. There’s also evidence that the strong physical performance was more than just a flash in the pan for Boston, as the team ranks in the top 10 in the league in defensive rebounding since the All-Star break, a sharp increase from their 26th rank on the season.
“Our focus level is much higher on it,” Jae Crowder admitted. “Guys looking in the mirror and not looking to the next guy, and just trying to take care of it as much as possible. We’re team rebounding. Our focus level has to be where it is with that.”
That type of growth in the team’s biggest area of weakness is a promising sign as the team enters the stretch run of the regular season. With imposing big men like Marcin Gortat, Tristan Thompson and Jonas Valancunias waiting for the Celtics in the postseason, Boston will need to prove this type of progress on the glass can be counted on when the stakes are raised.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.