April 20, 2007, 1:59AM

Rockets, Jazz want to be best in glass

First-round Western Conference series may well come down to rebounding

ROCKETS VS. JAZZ
Gm. 1: At Houston 8:30 Sat.
Gm. 2: At Houston 8:30 Mon.
Gm. 3: At Utah 8 April 26.
Gm. 4: At Utah 9:30 April 28.
Gm. 5:* At Houston TBD April 30.
Gm. 6:* At Utah TBD May 3.
Gm. 7:* At Houston TBD May 5.
* -- if necessary

This is how it should be. Strength against strength. Best versus best.

The Rockets' defensive rebounding against the Utah Jazz's offensive rebounding.

To be playing in the postseason, teams must be good, preferably better than good at some things.

There is no team better at protecting its defensive boards than the Rockets, no team better at crashing the offensive boards than the Jazz, and no way both can do what they do best in their first-round playoff series, beginning Saturday at Toyota Center.

"When you're No. 1 in the league in anything, you have to say it's a strength," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "(Between) their strength and our strength, who wins out in that rebound battle will go a long way to who wins ... the series."

Rebounding is so much a part of what these teams are about, they even sound alike when talking about the importance of taking care of the boards.

Said Jazz guard Derek Fisher: "For us, rebounding numbers have been key to our success all season."

In another sign of how evenly matched the teams are, Rockets forward Shane Battier put it: "For us, rebounds have been a barometer all year long.

"When we rebound well, we usually play well. When we struggle to rebound, we don't play well. That's been a common thread for us since the first day."


Strength and strategy

The Jazz are 41-15 when outrebounding opponents. The Rockets are 38-12 when winning the battle of the boards.

The Jazz lead the NBA in offensive-rebounding percentage and total-rebounding percentage, averaging 12.6 offensive rebounds and 51.9 total rebounds per game. The Rockets lead the NBA in the percentage of defensive rebounds, averaging 32.6 per game.

"We can easily point to our winning percentage when we rebound the ball well, and particularly when we are able to hit the offensive glass, get second opportunities, we've been really successful," Fisher said. "That could be the one stat that you can point to that will separate the series. Which team will dominate the glass the way they've been accustomed to all season?"

For both, success on the boards comes from a combination of strength and strategy.

The Rockets put extra emphasis on what Van Gundy calls "completing the defense."

They will sacrifice chances to sneak out on breaks to send extra bodies to the defensive glass, and, against the Jazz, they will expect every player to help.

"They're always going to have two or three guys in the paint when the shot goes up because that's how their offense is," said Rockets forward Chuck Hayes. "They send their wings, (Matt) Harpring, (Andrei) Kirilenko, (Ronnie) Brewer, in to keep it alive. We're going to have to do a better job containing them, getting them off the glass and fighting for rebounds."

The Jazz are so good on the boards because they are loaded with strong rebounders, but also because their offense keeps them in motion, usually with at least one big man moving toward the rim and at least one perimeter player in position to swoop in.

"If you look at me, (Carlos) Boozer, AK (Kirilenko), Matt Harpring, Paul (Milsaps), everybody can rebound," Mehmet Okur said. "Everybody hustles to the ball. Everybody is moving, so it's tough to box out. We're such an active team; we like to move a lot on the offense, so we have a great opportunity for offensive rebounds."

That motion has been tough for the Rockets against lesser rebounding teams, Toronto and Phoenix. They have been outrebounded by 10 or more only nine times, but were outboarded by a season-high 20 by the Jazz on Wednesday.

"They're big," Battier said. "They start Boozer and Okur. That's two wide bodies. Even though you try to box them out, they just lay on you, and they can move you with their force. Then you throw Kirilenko in there, Harpring, two guys who just get in there with length and athleticism, they're really good. That's what they've won 51 games doing — rebounding."

The Rockets have won 52 games by rebounding. Either that, or their rebounding has indicated they also were doing other things well.


Quick teams a problem

"You can't be passive on the boards and assertive in other areas," Van Gundy said. "You're either assertive or you're not. Rebounding reflects that for us. It means completing your defense. We talk about the start of our defense, which is transition defense because of our speed deficit. We've got to have three back, so we're not outnumbered. And the finish of our defense, which is contesting of a shot, not fouling on that shot and then securing the ball.

"Statistically, we have been the best defensive rebounding team percentage-wise. But there have been nights where we've struggled with quicker teams. We're better with more stationary targets, catching up with guys maybe in a cut, and the ball is shot and we're trying to block out. They pose unique problems for us.

"If we fight for the ball and fight for every inch on the court, we'll be in the game rebounding-wise, enough to win."

jonathan.feigen@chron.com

Posted by Third Eye


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