The 2012 NBA Finals has been as compelling as any playoff series in a very long time. A showdown between the leading scorer in the league three years running and the league's reigning MVP, you know it's something special when Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook are just the second best players on their respective teams. The first four games have been hard-fought and close, featuring both come-from-behind victories and games decided in the final minute. It's been great.
The nature of sports coverage dictates that ultimately the series will be viewed as a referendum on LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. If Miami wins, James will be the hero and Durant will be too young, too inexperienced. If Oklahoma City can somehow manage to come back from a 3-1 deficit (something very few teams have ever done in the history of the league, and none in the Finals) then Durant will usurp James' throne as the king of the league, while LeBron will be criticized as not being able to win the big one (again).
But what if it's all more mundane than that? What if the NBA Finals is really just coming down to something as basic as rebounding?
In the four games so far, the team that has won the rebounding battle has won the game. The series on aggregate has been ridiculously close. Over the course of four games, the cumulative score is Miami 389, Oklahoma City 384. The Thunder have shot a slightly better percentage from the field (.467 to .450) but Miami has hit more threes and more free throws, giving them a very slight edge in True Shooting percentage (.552 to .539). All the other stats are equally close.
Aggregate rebounding has been close as well, with Miami grabbing just eight more rebounds total in the four games, 160 to 152, a per game average of 40 rebounds to 38. But rebounding is the one line in the box score that has had a one-to-one correlation with the bottom line -- grab more boards and win the game, at least so far.
Two players loom very large in the rebounding discussion. Chris Bosh, still rounding into shape after returning from an abdominal strain at the start of the series, did not start in Game 1. He managed just five rebounds in that game, and the Heat lost. He was inserted into the starting lineup in Game 2 and has averaged nearly 12 rebounds per game in the three since, with Miami perhaps not coincidentally winning all three.
Meanwhile, Durant has suddenly disappeared on the boards. He grabbed eight in Game 1, the only Thunder victory, but has managed fewer than four per game in the three subsequent losses. He had a paltry two rebounds in Game 4. The problem is particularly urgent considering that Oklahoma City has been forced to go small to match up with the Heat, playing Durant at power forward for long stretches. A power forward averaging four rebounds is an issue.
Durant has made steady progress in his five seasons in the league, perhaps nowhere more so than as a rebounder. He averaged a career-high eight rebounds per game this season and was the most prolific rebounder from the small forward position in the league (though admittedly he did frequently play the four). In fact, Durant averaged more rebounds than Bosh did this year, who was at 7.9 rebounds per game during the regular season. So for Bosh to have 35 rebounds in the past three games compared to just 11 for Durant is very telling.
In a series between two such evenly matched teams, the difference may come down to effort. Rebounding is about hard work and concentration, and Durant and his Oklahoma City teammates simply need to do better. Keep an eye on the rebounding in Game 5, in particular Durant and Bosh. If the game follows the same pattern as the first four, the rebounds will tell the story.