The Atlanta Hawks did something on Wednesday night that virtually no one expected them to do — no, it wasn’t simply defeating the Denver Nuggets in the game, it was defeating them on the glass. Even after Atlanta out-rebounded Denver by a 47-40 margin in their 108-104 win, Denver remains 2nd in the NBA in rebounding margin at +5.37 rebounds per game, while Atlanta is 27th in the league at -4.00 rebounds per game. Entering the game? Denver was leading the league with over a +6.00 rebounding margin while Atlanta was 29th in the league with nearly a -5.00 margin. In short, Atlanta’s rebounding performance was the upset of the night.
The major question is: why does this stat tell so much of the story? Well, rebounding is one of the chief weaknesses of this Atlanta Hawks team, and it comes down to a roster construction decision. Atlanta traditionally chooses to play very small for huge stretches of the game, and when you consider that Al Horford and Josh Smith are both wildly undersized for their positions and that all 3 of the best guards on the roster are of the combo-guard size, it’s no secret why Atlanta can’t seem to rebound effectively. With that said, Atlanta is now 6-1 when out-rebounding their opponent with the only blemish being a road loss to the playoff-lock Los Angeles Clippers. On the flip side, the Hawks are now just 3-3 when being significantly out-rebounded, and when you consider that the 3 wins are against Eastern conference doormats (Orlando, Washington), and an over-matched/under-talented Portland team, things become more clear.
Against the Nuggets, there is no question that rebounding was a major key to the victory. Josh Smith and Al Horford combined for 25 rebounds in a game where there were only 87 rebounds to be grabbed and that’s always nice, but these guys are supposed to rebound. The bigger key was the gang rebounding of Zaza Pachulia (7 in 22 minutes), Ivan Johnson (4 in 15 minutes), Anthony Morrow (3 in 6 minutes), and Devin Harris (3). Each of these 4 guys rebounded at a higher rate per minute than their season average, and when you combine that with stellar efforts from Smith and Horford, it was enough to lock-down the boards. It would irresponsible to not mention the severe foul trouble for Denver’s best rebounder, Kenneth Faried, as he was only able to play 26 minutes and was held to just 8 rebounds, but even with normal production from him, Atlanta would have owned the boards.
Consider this, Atlanta was able to take SIXTEEN more shots than Denver in this game, and while it wasn’t just rebounds (Denver committed 20 turnovers), there is no denying the effect that rebounding, and especially offensive rebounding, can have on efficiency. Atlanta shot just 44% for the game, but scored 108 points because of the extra attempts/opportunities.
The rebounding issues for this edition of the Atlanta Hawks probably aren’t going away. Larry Drew was able to mix-and-match to play some big lineups (including the first time I can remember seeing Ivan Johnson play small forward) against Denver, and that certainly helped on the glass, but on most nights (and with Kyle Korver healthy), you’ll see a bit more of traditional rotations. I firmly believe you’ll continue to see a direct correlation between at least being competitive in the rebounding battle and results in the win column, and this is certainly something to monitor and track going forward.