It is a scene that has become all too familiar over the years with the Utah Jazz. Locked into an important game with the Dallas Mavericks, they are struggling to make a comeback. A Mavericks' shot goes up, and out of nowhere comes Alex English - Alex English?! - to rebound. He puts the ball back in.
A groan goes up from the crowd.Another opponent rebound. Another basket. Another game in a long line of games in which the Utah Jazz are out-rebounded.
As good as the Jazz have been over the past few years, an old problem has haunted them like Jacob Marley's ghost: poor rebounding.
By NBA standards, the Jazz are an anomaly - a poor rebounding team that has managed to become a contender. Coach Jerry Sloan has lectured relentlessly about it. He has considered running grueling "hamburger" drills in practice, but opted not to for fear of injury. And so the problem continues.
"Rebounding has always been one of our weaknesses," said Jazz forward Thurl Bailey. (Former Coach Frank Layden once became so flabbergasted by a player's rebounding that he said, "Congratulations, son, you just got one more rebound than a dead man.")
Of 16 playoff-bound teams this year, only five are being out-rebounded by their opponents (Utah, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Golden State and Indiana).
There are several theories on the Jazz's history of being out-rebounded:
- Waiting around for the other guy. With Karl Malone, ranking third in the league in rebounding, it's easy to wait for the Mailman to collect the debris off the boards. He is so impressive inside, one can be caught watching the master doing his work.
"Maybe there are a couple of guys who we depend on to get most of the boards - namely Karl (Malone) and Mark (Eaton)," said Bailey. "I'm as guilty as anyone as far as being consistent goes."
- The offense. The Jazz spend significant time every game trying to draw illegal defense calls against the opposition. That can include bringing Eaton or others outside, resulting in a technical against the opposition. Other times, it simply leaves Malone or nobody inside to rebound a missed shot.
"Sometimes, in our offense, we try to exploit the other team's defenses by putting our big guys out farther than normal," said Bailey.
- Lack of ability. The Jazz generally aren't as quick and don't have the leaping ability to battle the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson. Smaller, quicker teams also hurt the Jazz.
But that, Sloan says, isn't a legitimate excuse. Moses Malone is neither terribly quick nor a leaper, but is fifth on the NBA's alltime rebounding list.
"Look at his career," said Sloan. "He's going to go after every rebound, offensive and defensive."
He continued, "There are a lot of guys who can jump high. But they don't always get the rebound."
Leaping and quickness do come in handy, though. Said Bailey philosophically, "We are what we are."
- Lack of desire. Some teams are hungry for rebounds. Perhaps the Jazz aren't. Between Eaton and Malone, they have collected over 49 percent of this year's rebounds. By comparison, San Antonio's top two rebounders - David Robinson and Terry Cummings - have collected only 41 percent of their team's rebounds; they get significantly more help. At the start of the week, nine Spurs had more than 120 rebounds. The Jazz had four.
"I don't think the reason is laziness. We wouldn't have won so many games if it was laziness. But I think it's like a rollercoaster ride. Sometimes you're good, sometimes you're not," said Bailey.
And sometimes you're out of your head. Thursday night at the Forum, the Jazz took in an astonishing (for them) 15 offensive rebounds in the first half alone, 20 for the game - feats Utah hasn't accomplished all year.
But that's unusual. Most of the time, the Jazz are struggling to keep the opposition outside. If this old bugaboo continues through the final five games, the Jazz will finish the season being out-rebounded by the opposition for the fifth time in six years.
Athough the Jazz's total number of rebounds is only a few behind the opposition (3,142 to 3,187), and they are a respectable fifth in the NBA in defensive rebounding, there are several other telling numbers. Their total percentage of rebounds this year is tied for 20th in the league. Utah's percentage of offensive rebounds - the percentage of a team's missed shots which that team rebounds - is dead last in the NBA.
Among the other damning statistics for the Jazz is their penchant for giving up offensive boards. Only 10 other teams have given up more offensive rebounds than the Jazz.
"We've got to be able to defend teams. You have to rebound to do that," said Sloan. "If they get offensive rebounds on you, that's a big problem."
When all is said and done, perhaps all the Jazz can do is get in the right frame of mind. Get hungry. Get mean. Get aggressive. Avoid being compared to dead men.
"Before it's a team thing, it's an individual thing - wanting to get the rebound," said Bailey.
Said Sloan, "It takes a certain mentality to go after the ball. That's what players have to have. You can look at rebounding and talk about rebounding, but some of it just has to come from within."