BOSTON -- Whenever the Celtics and Lakers meet these days, one statistic seems to stand taller than all of the others: The correlation between rebounding and winning. Prior to Thursday's tilt, in the eight most recent meetings between the two clubs (dating back through last year's NBA Finals), the team that won the rebounding battle, won the game.
Thursday night's showdown in Boston did nothing to defy recent history, as Los Angeles emerged with a decisive 47-36 advantage on the glass, and, not surprisingly, left Boston with a 92-86 victory.
The Celtics, well aware of the statistic before the game, had rebounding high on the list of pregame priorities written on the dry erase board in the locker room. The Celtics, though, despite their good intentions, might have simply lacked the manpower to fulfill their goals on the glass. Boston found itself without three 7-footers, as Shaquille O'Neal (inflamed Achilles), Jermaine O'Neal (left knee surgery), and Semih Erden (right adductor strain) all sat out.
As a result of their absences, more of a burden was placed on the trio of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis, who had to contend with the Lakers' own three-headed monster of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. Garnett (11), Perkins (9), and Davis (5) amassed 25 rebounds between them, but fell six short of Bynum (9) Gasol (10) and Odom (12), who tallied 31. Odom proved to be the difference-maker, as he played with a fierce energy off the bench that Davis was unable to match. Odom split his time on the offensive and defensive glass evenly, tallying six boards on each side of the ball.
His fourth offensive rebound of the night proved to be the most troublesome for Boston, as he wrestled an errant 3-pointer from Kobe Bryant away from Garnett with just over a minute left and the Celtics trailing by six. Rather than establishing a possession of their own, the Celtics watched as Bryant turned Odom's offensive rebound into a crucial jump shot from the left elbow, giving LA an eight-point lead it would not relinquish.
"You know, they have big guys," Garnett said. "I think [Lamar Odom]'s done a great job of rebounding and coming off the bench and giving them a spark. Bynum and Pau play very well off each other. I think the team that's won the rebounding duel has won the game. So [that]'s one of the keys that Doc told us -- that that was one of the things we needed to do for the game, but I just think when you look down, we didn't do any of the things we set out to."
When these two clubs met just 11 days ago in Los Angeles, the Celtics dominated the glass, 43-30, and promptly ran away late with a 109-96 victory. In that game, though, Boston had another rebounding threat in Shaq, who played 13 minutes and grabbed six boards. Shaq's presence in the starting lineup allowed the Celtics to utilize Perkins -- a rebounding threat in his own right -- off the bench alongside Davis. The pair combined for 10 rebounds off the pine, while O'Neal and Garnett (13 boards) tallied 19. The quartet of Boston big men limited their Los Angeles counterparts, as no Laker reached double-figures in rebounding. Gasol finished with seven, Bynum a pedestrian six, and Odom grabbed just five.
After Thursday's loss, though, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers wasn't ready to use the absences of his big men as an excuse for losing the rebounding battle.
"I don't worry about that stuff," Rivers said. "I don't worry about it. They [weren't] here, you know what I mean? What am I supposed to [do]? They're not here, so he fact is, Shaq and JO, it doesn't matter to us tonight. We had what we had. Whether it would've made a difference or not, I don't know the answer is what I'm saying. But we had enough bodies to rebound tonight. We just didn't do it the way we wanted to."
In the two meetings between the Celtics and Lakers this season, it should be noted that the team that came out on top in the rebounding column (and in the game) held a decisive advantage in defensive rebounds. Out in Los Angeles, the offensive rebounding numbers stood at 10-9 in favor of the Lakers, but the Celtics boasted a 34-20 edge on the defensive glass. In Boston, both teams finished the game with 12 offensive rebounds, yet the Lakers finished with a comfortable 35-24 cushion on the defensive glass.
Why the disparity? It relates back to the offense and defense of the winning team. Out in Los Angeles, the victorious Celtics shot a blistering 60.3 percent from the field, which clearly limited LA's defensive rebounding opportunities. Meanwhile, the Lakers shot only 44.4 percent, and all of the missed shots presented the Celtics with more opportunities to snare defensive rebounds. When the scene switched to Boston, the team's switched their offensive and defensive scripts. The Lakers shot a much improved 47.9 percent on Thursday night, but held the Celtics to just 40.2 percent shooting, creating a clear advantage in defensive rebounding opportunities in the process.
Rivers said he considered tossing rookie Luke Harangody into the fray to see if he could provide his expected energy and battle for rebounds, but the length of the Lakers would have put the slightly undersized first-year player at a disadvantage.
"As good a rebounder as Luke is, you're playing a very long basketball team and if he came to an issue where rebounds were on the floor that you could've gotten to then Luke would've been great," Rivers explained. "But the rebounds tonight were above the rim, and whenever you play the Lakers the rebounds are above the rim because of their length, and that was a factor."
Should these two clubs once again meet in this year's NBA Finals, the Celtics' offseason additions of the O'Neals and Erden will give them depth at key rebounding positions -- something the Lakers do not have very much of once they move past Odom in the rotation. That added depth could prove to put Boston over the top, as a lack of depth at those positions ultimately doomed them in last year's NBA Finals. If a rematch is in the cards, it's a safe bet that rebounding will serve as the top priority for both clubs.
After all, if you win the rebounding battle, you win the game.
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com