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Bully Ball on the Boards: Milwaukee’s Offensive Rebounding Evolution

It’s been a drastic change from past seasons to this postseason

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NBA: Finals-Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NBA history. A real cellar dweller to upper crust kind of tale, something spilled from Horatio Alger’s pen. Ask any member of the NBA intelligentsia to stare into the past, and I doubt any would’ve predicted this meteoric rise. Etch it into history books, for this rags-to-riches narrative is one we’ll always remember: yes, I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks offensive rebounding.

Even from the early stages of this season, Bucks fans were treated to a team more dedicated to crashing the boards than any in the Mike Budenholzer era. It was mostly a product of changing personnel, but it should be another notch in Coach Bud’s newfound flexibility belt. This season has been an exercise in fluidity for him, shifting from the rigidity that’s characterized his career up to this point and a likely byproduct of his year’s entrusting the San Antonio Spurs system. He rarely let his Atlanta teams attack the boards either. While Bud’s insistence on solid transition defense remains a core tenet, he clearly gave this Bucks team the green light to leap at loose balls on the offensive end. We saw the seeds of a more aggressive team in the regular season, but they’ve dialed it up to 11 this postseason. Nowhere was that more evident than in Milwaukee’s stunning Game Four win over the Phoenix Suns, with a 17-5 offensive rebounding advantage that helped them carve out just enough points to squeak through and even the series at 2-2.

Below are Milwaukee’s offensive rebounding rate through the past three regular seasons, and then this year’s postseason. It’s typically more informative to use rebounding rate (what percentage of their misses they grab) as opposed to raw rebounding numbers since that can be skewed by team pace, turnovers, etc.

Bucks OREB% by Season

Season Off. Reb. Rate Rank
Season Off. Reb. Rate Rank
18-19 23.80% 26
19-20 22.60% 29
20-21 (Reg. Season) 25.70% 12
20-21 (Playoffs) 29.60% 2

We’re using data from Cleaning The Glass to cut out garbage time, but the only team the Bucks trail in OREB% in the Playoffs is Boston, who played merely one round. The bully board Bucks have sustained this level of aggression throughout four grueling bouts and even vaulted their OREB% above the improved regular season. Their 29.7% this Playoffs would’ve ranked tops in the league over the full year (New Orleans was tops at 28.7%).

It’s not just about getting the ball though, it’s about converting once you’ve ensnared it. That’s doubly important when Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense hasn’t performed all that well this postseason (94.2 points/play; would’ve ranked 23rd in regular season). Per Cleaning The Glass, the average points/play off of a miss this postseason has been 105.7, Milwaukee is at 110.5. With their volume of putback opportunities, that’s closed the gap between them and their competitors. They’re tops in the Playoffs in terms of second chance points at 16.6/game. In the Finals alone, they’re doubling up Phoenix with 16.3 second chance points per game compared to 8.8 for the Suns.

It’s not like they’ve faced all that many bottom-feeder defensive rebounding teams in the Playoffs either. Brooklyn (24th) and Miami (18th) weren’t all that great this regular season, but Atlanta (10th) and Phoenix (9th) were more than capable at controlling the defensive glass. Unfortunately, they’ve both been Bucked trucked by Milwaukee in their series:

Team DREB% in 2020-21

Team Regular Season Vs. Bucks in Playoffs
Team Regular Season Vs. Bucks in Playoffs
PHX 24.60% 30.40%
ATL 24.70% 32.30%
BKN 26.20% 25.60%
MIA 25.20% 32.40%

Funnily enough, the Nets actually did the best job keeping Milwaukee off the boards in the postseason. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton are the obvious carryovers who have upped some of their assertiveness, but the infusion of Bobby Portis, Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker has fueled Milwaukee’s second chance opportunities in these Playoffs thus far.

All in all, that aggression has paid huge dividends for a Milwaukee team that’s been shooting bricks, although that might be an insult to the bricks of the world. In Game Four, their advantage on the glass provided 12 additional shot opportunities. Couple that with their additional 12 shots from winning the turnover battle, and you have the recipe for pulling off a pretty inconceivable upset given the shooting percentages:

In the fourth period alone, Milwaukee snagged eight offensive boards against the Suns. They didn’t always lead to points, but few stood out more than this Connaughton second effort right past DeAndre Ayton.

And while it gets lost amidst the fury over the Booker non-call, it was critical that Giannis ran the floor and was able to snag the ball after Jrue’s miss and put it home.

The Milwaukee Bucks have been mediocre in the halfcourt all postseason, they can’t hit the three-ball, and their third best player is suffering a shooting slump that’s going on three rounds now. And yet, they keep on coming, and keep on winning. This team’s shown far more mental fortitude than any Bucks team in recent history, and that relentlessness shines through in their ferocity on the offensive boards. It’s a credit to Bud for empowering his players with their strengths and trusting their ability to recover defensively. It’s a credit to this team for not letting their pursuit of extra opportunities damage their Playoff-leading defense. It may not look pretty, but in tribute to a true rags-to-riches tale, I’ll polish this piece off with a cliche: sometimes you gotta win ugly.