NEWARK, N.J. — Fast-talking Washington coach Flip Saunders stood near center court before Wednesday night's game against Oklahoma City spewing praise on the Thunder for the second straight day.
After gushing over the team's All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Saunders shifted gears and shared his admiration for the Thunder's big men. He called the four-man rotation of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed the NBA's best foursome up front.
Approximately three hours later, Saunders watched his two-man tandem of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee own the glass against the quartet he had just spent so much time commending.
The Wizards out-rebounded the Thunder 52-43 in their three-point stunner over OKC on Wednesday. Washington had a commanding 19-6 advantage on the offensive end. Blatche and McGee — who outrebounded the Thunder's four post players 21-18 — combined for more offensive boards (nine) than the Thunder mustered as a team.
It was only the continuation of the Thunder's season-long trend of poor rebounding.
“We're trying to win jumping contests,” said forward Nick Collison “and that's tough in the NBA. That's definitely something we need to clean up. It's hurt us all year.”
Entering Friday's games, the Thunder ranked 18th in rebounding differential at an even minus-1. Most alarming is the league-worst 13.3 offensive rebounds the Thunder has allowed, as OKC has yielded at least 10 offensive rebounds in each game this season.
Additionally, only Sacramento, Phoenix, Washington and New Jersey — four teams with a combined 21 wins before Friday's games — had a worse defensive rebounding percentage rate than the Thunder's 71 percent.
A year ago, Oklahoma City ranked sixth in the league in rebounding differential with a plus-2.2 margin. Then yielding 11.4, the Thunder allowed almost a full two fewer offensive rebounds than it has this season.
“We have to keep getting better because that's the scouting report on us,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “(Opponents) are going to attack the boards, and they're going to try to get extra shots because they know we defend the first shot.”
The Thunder is 5-0 this season when it out-rebounds an opponent. The ugly truth about that stat, though, is the most telling thing about it is not the perfect record but the harsh reality that the Thunder has out-rebounded only five opponents in 15 games. So far, the Thunder has been able to overcome that hurdle, going 6-2 in games in which the opponent has won the battle of the boards and 1-1 in games that the rebounding category ends in a tie.
But the Thunder's performance Wednesday was as bad as we've seen, and the lack of focus finally proved costly. Washington's 19 offensive rebounds tied Memphis' tally from Dec. 28 as the Thunder's opponent high.
“We play great defense and get a stop and they miss a shot and tip a shot out and it deflates your whole team,” said Kevin Durant, who leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game.
The cure, players and coaches say, can be found in focusing on the fundamentals.
“All of us have been pretty bad at getting box outs this year,” Collison said. “You can't consistently finish the play if you're just trying to rely on out-jumping, because the ball goes different places and you're playing against really good athletes.”
The second-chance opportunities the Thunder is allowing from not closing out possessions with a rebound have squandered sound defensive efforts. Oklahoma City is sixth in the league in defensive field-goal percentage, yielding just 42.4 percent from the field, as well as an extremely impressive 30 percent clip from downtown.
“I think we're defending well this year,” Collison said. “But we're not finishing the play. We're giving teams more possessions and that, combined with when we have high-turnover games, is like giving the team the ball 15 to 20 times, letting them score and then starting the game and going back and forth. It's really tough to beat teams like that. The good news is we know we can play much better.”