Kiwi Steve in the NBA #19: Welcome To The Playoffs, Squires

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GAME ONE vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

It could have been so different with a better first quarter. The OKC Thunder away to the Portland Trail Blazers in game one of their 3 vs 6 seed Western Conference first round clash but where Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum showed up big time in that first frame, Paul George and Russell Westbrook did not. In fact if it wasn’t for Playoff Steve’s arrival on the scene then who knows how bad it could have gotten?

Playoff Steve turned up, that much was true. With the Blazers copping a massive blow to their chances in the playoffs a few weeks back when Jusuf Nurkic was hurt, that meant a Stache Bros reunion as starting centres opposing each other in the playoffs. Steven Adams vs Enes Kanter. Plenty more on that later but the Thunder made a big deal of feeding the ball to Steve early and he scored 11 points in the opening quarter. But some rank average defending and some rank average three-point shooting meant a big hole to climb out of for OKC. Lillard and McCollum scored 23 combined points in that first frame – just two shy of the entire Thunder team – as the Blazers shot out to a 39-25 lead after 1Q, a lead that they’d push out as far as 19 points.

Paul George was a game-time decision for this one with his shoulder, apparently he could hardly lift his arm four days ago. That might be an exaggeration but man was he struggling out there. Missing triple after triple and his buddies were no better. They were 2/18 from deep in the first half, although some prime Russ allowed them to close the gap to just six points at the big break.

There were frustrations the whole way along. Little things, like defensive misreads. Steven Adams was getting switched out onto guards who are simply too quick for him to deal with, leaving Enes Kanter free to feast and that he certainly did on the way to 20 points and 18 rebounds. Adams did a fair bit himself but was left setting screens most of the time so that others could miss shots from deep. However his two-man game with Russ did lead to a bit of success.

Typically OKC’s defence got much better as the game went on. Jerami Grant showed up to play even if he wasn’t able to hit his shots. Terrance Ferguson a little less so but he did get some words in amidst a verbal altercation with McCollum. Paul George found his rhythm at the end with a few clutch buckets but just after he drilled one to get within a single point with 2:44 on the clock – following a tip-out offensive board from Steve. But then Westbrook sagged off Lillard who dutifully knocked down a deep one with nothing but cold-blood in his veins. They did the rest with their free throws and the Blazers, who’d lost four outta four to the Thunder this season and lost their previous eight playoff games as a franchise, were victorious in game tahi.

30 points for Dame Lillard with 5/11 from 3pt range. McCollum added 24 points and Kanter had his 20p/18r as well. Three scorers with 20+ for Portland who shot 44% from outside in this one. Compare that to the Thunder with their 5/33 for 15.2% from 3pt and there’s your simple explanation of where this one got away. It was too many shades of that post All Star slump where a poor star and crap shooting was too much to overcome much too often. But we know they can step it up from here so it’s nothing too drastic over the course of a seven-game series. Westbrook had 24p/10r/10a for a playoff TD. Paul George scored 26 points but needed 24 shots to get there and he fouled out late on. Dennis Schroder was also off his game with 11 points on 5/17 shooting, missed all seven triples. But Nerlens Noel and Markieff Morris had a few moments.

This should hopefully set up a belter of a series between two teams that have a fair rivalry going on. Russ vs Dame is enough on its own to heat things up but then you’ve got a history of feisty encounters and two overachieving smaller-market fan-bases to go with a Stache Bros reunion and it’s almost too much for one series. OKC might have swept the regular season series but Dame Lillard dropped 51 the last time these two met and he was the main man again in this first playoff clash. The patterns will begin to emerge from game two onwards. The only thing missing is Jusuf Nurkic, who has always given Adams fits. He’s a bruiser of a player and when Adams can’t be the physically dominant five he’s not the same. Won’t have that issue against Kanter though.

Jared Wright/Seattle PI: “It also can’t be understated how volatile and competitive these two teams have been when they’ve played. Westbrook is a damn psycho cut from the cloth of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and Steven Adams is a brick wall and a gadfly melded into a chiseled seven-foot frame. These guys get under the skin of everybody, but they seem to take particular delight in needling Lillard and Nurkic. Nurk won’t be playing in this series (or any series this year, and maybe next year), but Dame was always going to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Oklahoma City, both because he’s the Blazers’ best player and because he’s buried OKC with a couple huge shots in years past. The Blazers can’t let Westbrook and Adams’ mind games fluster them like they did in the regular season.”

STACHE BROS REUNITED

Ain’t nothing but the competition between those whistles, but no doubt Steve and Enes will catch up for a few halal meals along the way. Nurkic’s injury was a rough one for Portland, however grabbing Kanter two months back after the Knicks waived him has already proven a clever move. His defence has improved a lot since back in the day and he’s always gonna be able to score. Going up against the fella who taught him so much of that defence (and a little vice versa with some of Steve’s post moves, no doubt), this was a matchup that to be honest you’d expect Adams to dominate.

That’s not what happened though, which makes this friendship clash even tastier. This is a legit battle as long as Kanter’s out there putting up numbers like this one. In his last playoff series with OKC, Billy Donovan was famously caught whispering that he can’t play Kanter out there. Well his entire team couldn’t play him this time.

This is a cool story for Kanter, who is one of the NBA’s great characters. He’s a funny bastard with a great sense of humour but he’s also a political exile and deserves enormous credit for his moral consistency there. He’s a civil rights hero on a scale not far off Colin Kaepernick, but being from Turkey it’s not a narrative that gets much heat. Plus of course he spent a heap of this season being benched by a tanking Knicks team so for this little resurgence where he’s now a key player on a playoff team… dude deserves it.

Enes Kanter: “I was on the worst team in the league, and I wasn't even playing because they thought I was too old to play. The situation and all the drama, it was so frustrating because all I wanted to do was go out there and just win. A couple of days ago, I looked in the mirror and said, 'Man, I'm blessed to be here with an amazing organization and amazing teammates that trust in me.' It definitely feels amazing, and it's definitely a blessing.”

And remember it was the Trail Blazers who nearly signed him as a restricted free agent from the Thunder back in the day. They got their man eventually (and a whole lot cheaper too). No doubt that Steven Adams, one of the league’s most strategic film-room students, is going to respond to this one. He’ll hit back for sure. Which should lead to plenty more Steve vs Enes moments. But don’t sleep on Kanter because he’s a mud defender. POR went 6-2 with him as starting centre.

DOWN THE STRETCH

Ah so how did we get here? Interesting story. Because the last Kiwi Steve in the NBA cut off as OKC had just gotten a valuable win over the Lakers to snap a little losing streak but they were still facing a probably seventh or eighth seed and a sloppy first round exit in not too many games against Denver or Golden State. But they could at least get going and give them a decent crack.

Next up was a homer against the Detroit Pistons. And for three quarters things looked shady. Steven Adams only played 24 minutes all up as he struggled with a bit of foul trouble and Blake Griffin went wild with 44 points in the first three quarters. And then Blake only scored one point in the fourth as OKC pulled away down the stretch for what ended up being a kinda comfortable win. Westbrook didn’t get the TD but he’d done enough to ensure he’ll average one for the season… and this pass to Adams is as good as it gets. Magic Johnson eat ya heart out, son.

24 minutes meant a sneaky one for Adams but he was bloody impressive while he was out there. Case and point is a 14p/14r box score despite the limited opportunities but it’s even more visible when you look at Andre Drummond’s 4 points and 9 rebounds. Not too often that dude gets shut down like that. Suddenly the Thunder had a little momentum.

Following that they were away to the Minnesota Timberwolves and you might be forgiven for looking at a minimal output from Steve and thinking: quiet game. I mean, it might have been. But his 8pts/6rebs came with an insane +31 on-court differential. The Thunder only won this thing by six points and yet were 31 points better when Steve was out there. Figure that one out.

And Minny got goods from Karl-Anthony Towns with 35 points, Andrew Wiggins with 24 points, and Dario Saric with 23 points. Yet after a 22-5 Wolves run put them in control in the third, Paul George stepped up to close it back and Schroder re-established things for OKC early in the fourth. Towns made sure it was a close one but Westbrook did enough with a triple double as per usual.

Which is just about when things took a turn for the playoff optimists out there in Oklahoma. Two games to go and the Thunder had won three in a row. They had a double header against Houston and then Milwaukee, two supreme teams. First up was James Harden and the Rockets and forget the most of it, OKC were down 14 points in the fourth when Westbrook and George sparked a comeback that saw OKC overcome 39 points from Harden and another 24 from Paul to do this for the win with just second remaining…

NBA.com: “Russell Westbrook snagged the ball and started to race up court. With no timeouts and less than 10 seconds to go, the Thunder’s point guard had to improvise under duress. Trapped just before half-court, Westbrook dished to Steven Adams up ahead for a lightning quick give and go. As soon as the ball was back with Westbrook, it was back out of his hands and into the corner. That part of the play was what Billy Donovan had drawn up, and Paul George executed it to perfection. Rising up with a hand in his face, George buried a go-ahead three-pointer with 1.8 seconds to go for his fourth game-winning bucket of the season.”

That shot, my friend. Not just the shot but the entire play with Adams and Westbrook’s contributions. The three best players on the roster combining for the biggest moment of their season. That win, coupled with a Nuggets defeat and Blazers win (Mo Harkless with the buzzer beater against the Lakers), meant that the second seed was up in the air and the Thunder suddenly had some hope of avoiding the Dubs or Nuggets. Outrageous stuff, gotta love this sport.

Adams had a relative stinker in that game, to be fair. Couldn’t hit his shots at all, even if he held his own defensively and came out with another positive +/-. It was three-point shooting that had Houston in the ascendency here. Until the Thunder came back to outscore them by fifteen in the final ten minutes.

Then the finale and this was not a Steven Adams feature game at all. A bit of roughhouse from Tim Frazier saw Adams hit the deck with a sore shoulder and he hit up that locker room quick time. He did return later on to help book that victory. Paul George didn’t play at all as he was rested with his shoulder soreness. But Dennis Schroder had a blinder with 32 points with a career high 8 triples, while Jerami Grant made up for the lack of Adams with a career high 28 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo was out for the Bucks so this wasn’t them at their best but OKC rolled their way to a fifth win in a row and there you go. TD for Rusty Buckets as per.

Meanwhile Portland knew they could wrap up the third seed with a win against the Kings the same night and yet, potentially because the flipside of having to play the Utah Jazz in 4 vs 5 with defeat perhaps being better suited to their squad than going up against the Thunder, they chose to rest a bunch of their key guys and play just six players. Like, for real. Six players. And they still won! So there you have it, Thunder vs Blazers and the funk is real.

GOOD CHAT

The Athletic: “Steven Adams is very proud of his feet. Sure, they’re massive and mangled and look like they belong in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, but dammit they’re clean. The Oklahoma City Thunder center is sitting bare-footed inside a room at the team’s practice facility, where our late-season chat will span about 30 minutes and cover a dozen or so entertaining topics – basketball being one, of course, along with his offseason preference for Guinness beer, his history of fighting with classmates and so many of his SEVENTEEN siblings, his no-nonsense approach to relationship building with teammates and so many others. But one of the Thunder’s media relations men, John Read, has noticed Adams’ missing sneakers and made a presumptuous point: Maybe, Read suggests, the out-of-town reporter doesn’t want to have this conversation amid the stench of a seven-footer’s sweaty dogs.”

ONE FOR THE SPORTSMANSHIP AWARD REEL


BOX SCORES

vs DETROIT PISTONS (W 123-110):

24 MIN | 14 PTS (7/9 FG) | 14 REB (8 REB) | 2 BLK | 2 TO | 4 PF

Daily Thunder: “OKC won 59-32 on the glass, 21-4 on the offensive boards, outscored Detroit 64-30 in the paint, and had a 27-4 advantage in second chance scoring. Andre Drummond (the NBA’s leading rebounder) was held to four points and nine rebounds — as Steven Adams harassed him to the tune of 14 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks. After getting himself into early foul trouble, Adams saw just six minutes of action in the first half. He had 12 points and 13 rebounds after halftime as the Thunder took command.”

at MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (W 136-126):

27 MIN | 8 PTS (4/5 FG) | 6 REB (2 OFF) | 1 AST | 1 STL | 3 TO | 6 PF

vs HOUSTON ROCKETS (W 112-111):

37 MIN | 8 PTS (3/11 FG, 2/4 FT) | 13 REB (8 OFF) | 1 AST | 1 PF

at MILWAUKEE BUCKS (W 127-116):

12 MIN | 4 PTS (1/5 FG, 1/2 FT) | 2 REB (2 OFF) | 1 BLK | 1 PF

at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, GAME ONE (L 104-99):

36 MIN | 17 PTS (8/14 FG, 1/2 FT) | 9 REB (6 OFF) | 1 AST | 3 STL | 3 TO | 2 PF


NEXT WEEK

GAME 2: at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, Wednesday at 2.30pm (NZT)

GAME 3: vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, Saturday at 1.30pm (NZT)

GAME 4: vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, Monday at 1.30pm (NZT)

GAME 5: at vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, Wednesday TBD


SLAM DUNKS

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