Kiwi Steve in the NBA #20: Can The Thunder Save the Series From Here?

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As the fourth quarter in Oklahoma went on, the telly cameras made a point of focussing in on Steven Adams a few times as the Big Kiwi sat quietly on the bench. Towel draped over his lap, rising to applaud his mates a few times but to be fair there wasn’t often a lot to applaud. Game four of the series and OKC were about to drop into a 3-1 hole as every little run that the Thunder made was matched by Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and the fellas draining a few huge shots in return. Oklahoma City just couldn’t get it close enough.

Meanwhile Steven Adams kept on sitting there. He’d sit out the entire fourth quarter of this game and not through injury. It was a matchup situation with the Thunder needing all the shooters they could get on the floor at once… and that still didn’t work. Perhaps a bit of rebounding wouldn’t have gone astray, although Steve as gassed by that point from defending Dame Lillard so much in the first half and playing at the pace they needed to get enough possessions in to spark a comeback, that woulda been tough. Still, when you’ve got a hundy million dollar player not even contributing in the fourth quarter of a home playoff defeat that’s a tough one to swallow.

The Sports Animal: “Where was Steven Adams? I am not even talking about in the fourth quarter when OKC went small. I’m talking about the whole game. Adams had just six shot attempts for the second consecutive game. Portland is packing the paint so much that it is affecting both Westbrook and Adams. But this has been a recurring theme since the Thunder’s season took a nosedive after the All-Star Break. Adams hasn’t been a part of the game plan and it hurts this team. He doesn’t need to score on post-ups, but OKC is wasting him away. It might be because teams know Westbrook can find him when he drives the lane, so if you can turn Westbrook into a jump shooter by clogging the lane, teams are not only hurting Westbrook but also Adams. Teams are killing two birds with one stone. The ripple effect of Westbrook’s shooting woes has gone a long way.”

The fact is, though, that Steven Adams hasn’t been enough of a factor for a long time now. Ever since the All Star break and there are plenty of reasons for that, most of them discussed in this same column over the weeks. He bounced back strong leading into the playoffs but this matchup, for whatever reason, just hasn’t worked for him.

That theory about Russ is fair. It’s a tough matchup for Steve when guys are sitting off and clogging the paint. Those are his areas, hence he’s not had double digit shot attempts in a game all postseason… and he averaged ten attempts a game during the regular season. He’s shooting at a high rate, converting at 67.6% through the first four games which is superb. But it’s just not happening regularly enough and when you don’t have an outside shot then what can you do? Not a whole lot. Maybe our dude really does need to start hitting threes to help keep him and his defence out on the court in these kinds of games. Right now he’s getting squeezed out of games.

The other thing, and this is a completely related factor, is that in the last three games he’s only had six offensive rebounds. He had six in game one. This a bloke who basically averaged five per game the last two seasons. Those second chance efforts are massive for the Thunder, a team that doesn’t shoot at a great clip so having second attempts tend to help them immensely. Yet despite all the misses those second chances aren’t happening. Shout out to the Blazers for sorting it out but damn.

Early Bird Rights: “The playoffs are a game of weaknesses, and Presti has bet heavily over the last few years on building a defense devoid of weaknesses, even if it brings their offensive ceiling down. It feels odd to say that Adams, who really can’t shoot outside of the paint, provides “spacing” to the team’s offense, but the difference between only being able to shoot at the rim and being able to hit short hooks and floaters from 5-6 feet gives them a different kind of spacing. His efficiency from these areas and ability to rise over Kanter’s contest makes him a valuable component of their offensive attack, especially in pick-and-roll with Westbrook, and is something that should be featured more heavily as the Thunder move forward in this series. Eschewing post-ups, which play right into Kanter’s strengths, and adding more pick-and-roll to their attacking profile, will give the Thunder offense a boost they desperately need. Every fraction of a point is important in the playoffs, especially in a closely contested series, and Oklahoma City will want to maximize every trip down the floor if they’re going to take advantage of their very real opportunity to make the Conference Finals this season.”

But game four wasn’t on Steve. There are a million little aspects to every playoff series and the way those things interact and evolve is what determines the outcome… but sometimes it’s as simple as the obvious reason. Right now Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are absolutely dominated Russell Westbrook and Paul George and that’s been too much to overcome for the Thunder. Especially when Portland has the better role players anyway.

Westbrook and George both started well in G4. PG scored seven in the first quarter but then had to sit the entire second with foul trouble which haunted him the rest of the way. Russ started well and drilled a three right over his mate Lillard’s head to put OKC up by seven with two and a half mins remaining in the first half. He then missed all ten of his remaining shots and didn’t score a single point in the second half until converting on a late free throw, while Portland closed the first half on an 11-0 run which swung the game completely.

Between Russ and PG they were 13/42 from the field. Lillard and McCollum went 17/39. Chuck in that Al-Farouq Aminu hit four triples and that Zach Collins didn’t embarrass himself when Enes Kanter had to sit and there wasn’t much more to it, really. OKC are on the brink now and unless their star players step it all the way up and win three in a row then that’s gonna be season over, sadly.


Some Things That Are Going Wrong

  • Paul George’s shoulder (which is probably worse than we realise)

  • Steven Adams not dominating Enes Kanter

  • Damian Lillard on a legacy mission after last season’s playoff dud

  • Terry Stotts vs Billy Donovan

  • Portland shooting 44.1% from the field and 41.5% from deep

  • OKC shooting 41.3% from the field and 30.8% from deep

  • Terrance Ferguson has been awful with both fouls and shooting

  • Thunder are hitting 77.7% from free throws, not terrible but certainly could be better

  • At their best, Oklahoma City are a suffocating defence, grabbing steals and tips and turnovers… but those numbers are all pretty even in this series – OKC not able to control the stats where they usually exceed

  • Pure and simple, OKC can’t shoot and they relied on PG13 being the man to get to this point and now, playing through injury, it ain’t working

  • Markieff Morris is yet to be the dude they wanted him to be

  • Dennis Schroder’s mostly been a bubbling trash heap

  • Missing open threes, man… come on

  • Russell Westbrook, unfortunately

  • Next question


Is There Any Way Back?

When Oklahoma City won that third game, they did so on the back of some heroic shooting. The only game when they got the shots to drop, Russ scoring 33 points with 4/5 from 3pt. Paul George struggling back for 22 points on 3/16 shooting but making 14 free throws. Terrance Ferguson was 3/4 from 3pt. Dennis Schroder hit a couple of them too. Jerami Grant bouncing back from mssing eight triples in the first couple games with 4/5 from 3pt. As a team they were 51.7% on 15/29. They led by 10 points at the big break and never trailed in the second half.

And yet 25 points from Damian Lillard in the third quarter still made this thing interesting. The Thunder had to shoot out of their skins to win and even then it wasn’t easy. That’s not something that they can repeat, to be honest. It’s too much for a terrible shooting team to hit ‘em at better than fifty percent, let alone for three games in a row. But they definitely need to be in that 50/40 range if they’re gonna do much. As in 50% from the field and 40% from deep. Wild things happen in the playoffs and the Thunder have missed so many open looks that surely they have to revert to a happier conversion rate soon… but frankly they ain’t looking capable right now.

But suppose the Thunder can shoot at a better clip. Then what? Well, Paul George is gonna have to be MVPG on defence going up against Lillard and McCollum in the long run because those two have to be stopped somehow. Andre Roberson didn’t play this season, he can’t do the trick. Paul George is going to have to give it all because Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson, and Markieff Morris can’t stick. And Steven Adams is getting exhausted trying to stay on his toes on the switch with Lillard as it is.

Do that and increase the efficiency with fewer turnovers and a few more offensive boards and let’s see what goes on. Get Kanter twisted in the pick and roll. That’ll help… as long as outside shooters can stretch the floor. There isn’t really anyone on the roster being underutilised that can step it up, but Jerami Grant’s been much better the last two. There are ways and means. But right now it’s kinda hard trying to do the mental gymnastics required to imagine the Thunder getting back into this bad boy.


Dispatches From The Stache Bros Reunion

Enes Kanter: “It did feel strange, the first two games, but I mean, now, it’s a war out their man. There’s no friends, there’s not being brothers or anything. All we do is just go out there and try to win the series. He’s going to try everything to get under my skin and I’m going to try everything to get under his skin and, like I said, after the series, we’ll be back to being best friends. But right now, there’s no being friends. It’s a war.”

Yup. The rivalry is real. But right now it’s strangely spinning in Enes Kanter’s direction, which nobody really saw coming. Obviously the game one exploits were an outlier as OKC really targeted Kanter and old mate came through huge with a 20p/20r game. Since then he’s been much less of a factor but still he’s chipping in with those buckets and offensive rebounds… exactly what Steven Adams is supposed to be offering. And Steve holds up well enough with the numbers, to be fair. Check the playoff averages…

STEVEN ADAMS: 32.5 MIN | 12.3 PTS (67.6% FG) | 8.0 REB | 1.3 AST | 2.3 PF

ENES KANTER: 28.5 MIN | 13.3 PTS (55.3% FG) | 9.5 REB | 1.6 AST | 3.5 PF

But the thing is… this wasn’t supposed to be a contest. It was meant to be master against apprentice, one more lesson to learn. Kanter’s never getting close to NBA All-Defensive recognition and the mere thought is laughable, however he’s better as a defender than his reputation says. He’s improved heaps. Chances are that a fit Jusuf Nurkic would be doing the same and then some

Daily Thunder: “Thunder supporters have been well-versed over the years in the defensive shortcomings of their former backup big man. Many expected the Thunder to attack Kanter at will throughout the series, but he hasn’t been nearly the sieve that he was thought to be. Kanter was crucial in Portland’s surge to close the second quarter, forcing a steal on Adams and rejecting Westbrook at the rim. Kanter continues to be a force on the glass as he finds himself on the upper-hand of his matchup against his former ‘Stache Bro.”

The Oklahoman: “For Kanter to fill in so ably for Nurkic has been a key for the Blazers taking a 3-1 series lead, and Adams’ inability to dominate the paint has hurt the Thunder. Adams is not a natural scorer. But the Thunder’s lack of outside shooting has allowed Portland to jam the paint and not only impact Westbrook’s attempts to drive, but Adams’ attempts to get some things accomplished. Even to the point of rebounding. If the floor is spaced, offensive rebounding becomes easier. If the paint is crowded, it’s harder for an Adams to grab loose balls. The supposed Thunder advantage created by Nurkic’s injury has not transpired, and the Thunder is on the edge of elimination.”


Bill Simmons Been Yapping

Hilarity in the final stages of writing this one, as all the major kiwi mainstream outlets went hard on the claim that Steven Adams has been “tipped to be traded” in the offseason. Apparently “an acclaimed American sports journalist” has dropped the line already. And who could that person be, pray tell? Adrian Wojnarowksi, perhaps? Could it be Zach Lowe? How about Mark Stein or Howard Beck or Ramona Shelbourne or Brian Windhorst? Nope, just Bill Simmons yarning away to himself on his latest podcast.

Billy Big Bollocks: “The guy they are going to have to trade is Adams who has been really, really disappointing not only in this series but down the stretch too. This is a series where he is by far the best big man and he's not really having an impact on it. He makes a big price and that’s somebody who would be really valuable to somebody else, I think. I don't know what kind of physical shape he's in but that's the way they have to think. Adams is probably the fall guy coming out of this because they are not going to break up Russell Westbrook and Paul George.”

Simmons makes a fair point about accountability here. If OKC aren’t able to win game five and make a run of it then heads will fall and somebody’s copping the fallout of that. Because of the insane money that Westbrook is due over the next four seasons, it’s hard to see him able to be moved and Paul George has been their best player. So yeah, if they wanna improve the roster drastically then moving Steven Adams’ contract is the only way to free up the finances. But Adams is also a beloved part of that franchise, with Russ as much as anyone, so it’d be a brave move. Still, one to ponder for sure… but pretending like Bill Simmons sounding off on his podcast equals legit rumours and not just one passionate Celtics fan with no inside yarns then yeah… silly kiwi sports media once again going for the clickbait angle.


Dropping Bodies

Honestly, NBA big fellas. Call your screens if you don’t want to see guards getting busted into a hundred tiny pieces right in front of you. Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Thomas have both copped hits as heavy as this one. Neither complained. In fact Thommo went as far as agreeing that the missed call from his five was the issue.


BOX SCORES

GAME TWO at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (L 114-94):

30 MIN | 16 PTS (7/8 FG, 2/5 FT) | 9 REB (3 OFF) | 1 AST | 1 STL | 2 TO | 4 PF

GAME THREE vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (W 120-108):

35 MIN | 10 PTS (5/6 FG) | 7 REB (2 OFF) | 2 AST | 1 BLK | 3 TO | 2 PF

GAME FOUR vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (L 111-98):

29 MIN | 6 PTS (3/6 FG) | 7 REB (1 OFF) | 1 AST | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 1 TO | 1 PF


NEXT WEEK

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

GAME SIX (if necessary) vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS, Friday TBD (NZT)


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