Kiwi Steve in the NBA #21: Elimination

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Big Game Dame

Last play of the fourth quarter, scores are tied 113-113, and Damian Lillard has the ball in his hands following a miss from Russell Westbrook. Paul George steps up to guard him as he takes it into the halfcourt. Dame stands there. Time ticks down. He keeps standing there. Paul George is ready to go either way, he’s poised to strike just as soon as Lillard makes a move. But he keeps standing there, dribbling slowly. Under three seconds left now, a slight hesitation… then suddenly he shimmies a step to his right and hurls it up from basically on the logo. Thirty-seven feet out from the basket and the rest will go down in history…

The man is so chill he might as well be marching south to Winterfell. Damian Lillard’s middle name might as well be audacity… do you think he settles for that if they’re down in that moment and it’s make or lose? Doubt it. Like, he didn’t even try to get a better shot, this was legit what he was after from the moment he got that ball in his hands. The cheek of it. Then the wave bye bye towards the Thunder bench and the look of pure business on his face even as the bench mobbed him. If he’d missed and they’d gone on to lose in overtime he’d have looked like a bit of a clown. But he didn’t miss. And that’s the series.

That shot brought up 50 points for him in the contest, a Blazers record. He averaged 33 points on 48% shooting from deep in the series, without doubt the MVP of the first round across all teams. It’s Big Game Dame, folks. Five years ago he dropped the guillotine on the Rockets to clinch that series. This one was even wilder. And, honestly, at that point there was nothing OKC could do but sigh and applaud.


Before All That…

Facing elimination on the road, the Thunder had actually stepped it up here. They came out hitting shots, Paul George made his first six in a row, and they were up by ten within the first quarter… although with 19 points in the opening frame the signs were already there that Damian Lillard was on something special. Michael’s Secret Stuff, probably.

But that start was reliant on the hot shooting of OKC and we know that’s not who they are as a team. It was unsustainable and with George getting into foul trouble again and Lillard going wild with 34 points in the first half it was the Blazers who led 61-60 at the break. They were moving the ball around beautifully and knocking it down. Enes Kanter seemed to bust his shoulder but he came back out to start the second half.

It felt like OKC had done their thing, their little sprint out from the opening gun, and been overhauled towards inevitable defeat. Trailing 84-75 in the third after yet another dagger from Lillard, you’d be forgiven for quitting the tab and giving up. But that was right when they came surging back. Paul George answered with a three, followed by a couple stops and makes for Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant. Suddenly that’s an 8-0 run and it’s a one point game. By the time Russell Westbrook chipped in that run to close the quarter had stretched out to a 15-4 dash.

Steven Adams played through foul trouble in the third, as did Paul George. Each were on four fouls. But just like last game Adams was benched for the entire fourth quarter with Billy Donovan preferring his speedy and stretchier small-ball options. Jerami Grant at centre and hitting threes. And Grant played great, coming up with a few huge plays and with seven minutes left in the game the Thunder were up by fifteen points.

Even then though, you knew that the Blazers had a run in them and when all you’ve gotta do is grind out the last seven, get some functional buckets and play some top defence, it was super weird that Adams continued to watch from the sidelines. Obviously his free throw shooting might have opened up a hacking strategy which is always nice to avoid (especially because it’s so boring), but yeah. Billy chose to live by the jumper and die by the jumper and what followed, particularly in the last three minutes, was nothing short of a disaster.

Could Steven Adams have helped with that? Locked down some rim protection and scored a few buckets in the post? Maybe not, given how he tends to get switched out off screens and crowded out in the paint on offence. Like, they certainly didn’t lose this one because Steven Adams wasn’t out there at the end. But keep that in mind with some of the backlash because he didn’t even play the fourth quarters of games four and five. The meltdown happened without him.

OKC scored two points in the final three minutes. A Paul George jumper from fifteen feet to put the Thunder in front again with 40 seconds remaining. The same bloke had already missed three free throws in the fourth though, including a crucial pair with a six-point lead and 2:15 on the clock. Chuck in a couple misses, some stagnant offensive structure (sometimes it’s like there’s literally no movement at all), and a handful of turnovers and that’s the blueprint for chocking away a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of an elimination game. What Damian Lillard did to win it was special. But what the Thunder did to lose it beforehand was the exact opposite and questions, gotta say it, are going to be asked from top to bottom of this franchise after that one. That’s three straight first round exits since Kevin Durant left.

Paul George played 42 minutes despite the fouls and despite the shoulder he shot 14/20 for 36 points, playing some quality defence too. Five turnovers was too many and the PFs were an issue too. If they’d gone to overtime then both PG and Russ were a foul away from being sat down. Old mate Rusty Buckets has been getting heat throughout this series and to be honest he deserves it. Though he did score 29 points with 14 assists and 11 rebounds. He made four triples. Some of his passing and those drives to the hoop were magical. But this was the best and worst of Russ in a single game as he shot 11/31 overall and, like PG, had five turnovers.

Meanwhile Damian Lillard had 50 points on 17/33 shooting with a record ten triples and in the end that was all that mattered. Lillard was the best player on the court. He was the best player in the series. He did what needed to be done and everything else is collateral damage.


Final Dispatches from the Stache Bros Reunion


The Fallout

The Ringer/Jonathan Tjarks: “It hasn’t mattered what strategy Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan has tried with Steven Adams, a burly 7-footer more comfortable in the paint. If he drops his center back on screens, Lillard and McCollum can dribble into open pull-up 3s. If he extends Adams up the court, the two can string him out and get around him.

What is happening to Adams against Portland is the same thing that is happening to Rudy Gobert against Houston. Defenses built around more traditional big men don’t have answers for the pull-up 3. The Blazers can put Adams in the pick-and-roll and get an open shot anytime they want. He’s in the 6th percentile of defenders on that play in the playoffs, giving up 1.19 points per possession. He has been a bigger defensive liability in this series than his former backup Enes Kanter, and he doesn’t have the offensive ability to make up for the points he gives up. Adams can’t space the floor, create his own shot, or facilitate for others. He has not been a difference-maker in three postseasons without Durant. He’s a platoon center getting paid ($25 million a season) like a star.”

USA Today: “Adams has often been referred to as one of the strongest players in the league. He can set some of the hardest screens imaginable and is often one of the best offensive rebounders each year. Outside of that, though, Adams offers little on the offensive end and lacks the quickness needed on defense. The Trail Blazers have often picked apart the Thunder on defense when Adams is on the court. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are slicing up the defense in pick-and-roll situations. If Adams drops in coverage, they can shoot from deep. If he stays with them, the Portland duo can escape Adams and penetrate into the paint.”

Ben Golliver/Washington Post: “Presti could try to trade Adams, a gritty center whose offensive rebounding and interior defensive presence have made him a strong fit alongside Westbrook and George. But there are complicating factors of all kinds. Oklahoma City relies heavily on Adams thanks to a front line that is perilously thin, and he has proved to be one of the most dependable staring centers in the league. At the same time, he didn’t play particularly well against the Blazers and is owed more than $50 million over the next two seasons. Would Presti be selling low by parting with a traditional center with no ability to shoot the three immediately after a dud series? Would he be forced to seek a center in return in an Adams deal, a la the Memphis Grizzlies’ swap of Marc Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors?”

Hoops Hype: “A final issue Oklahoma City may have to address this summer, and this could be their toughest decision to make, is whether or not this team is really worth paying the luxury tax for. Paying two players the max for the foreseeable future and without much flexibility to improve the roster around them, the Thunder may realize that this team has done all they can, and look to dump some of the pricier contracts around George and Westbrook to get under the tax. That would mean guys like Steven Adams and Dennis Schroeder could find themselves on the block this summer. In particular, Adams had a pretty disappointing playoffs, especially for a player set to make nearly $26 million next season. A big man without creativity out of the post, who doesn’t space the floor and can’t defend on the perimeter, Adams fits an extinct archetype, one not fit to make an impact in modern playoff series. Schroeder, meanwhile, had his moments this year, but paying $15.5 million to the backup of a guy making $38.2 million is too much money committed to just one position.”


The Trade Yarns

The other day, in the previous Kiwi Steve piece, there was a bit about the kiwi media’s complete and utter overreaction to Bill Simmons (a US sports opinion beast but not an NBA insider by any means… just ask James Dolan) suggesting his opinion that Steven Adams needed to be traded to fix the OKC Thunder. His opinion, which in true American sports media fashion was presented as fact because that’s how they do it there – just look at their president. And the kiwi mainstream fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

There’s a point to be made here where Billy Boy makes a bit of sense, let’s come back to that in a second. What’s crazy is that it’s become a story in Aotearoa, people falling for it and everything. On the telly news and the radio. All this misinformation because of one person’s opinion and kiwi media’s obsession with how New Zealand is viewed overseas. Which, to be fair, is more than a media obsession. It’s a New Zealander obsession mostly. Of course the enlightened amongst us know that worrying about other people’s opinions is a waste of time anyway.

This isn’t a case where you can pick your favourite either… unless your favourite is RNZ because they were the only one of the big five multi-platform sports news outlets that didn’t bother with it. TVNZ and Newshub both went hard. Stuff and the Herald, same deal. It’s a sloppy view of journalism to invent a story based on a tenuous opinion of a person spouting yarns on their podcast but here we are, worth saying that while this kind of clickbait is common for all those four media outlets, it’s often mixed side by side with some excellent stories too. Just gotta be diligent in sorting the trash from the tasty scoops… usually the headline gives it away and whenever you see words like “tipped”, “predicted”, or “likely” in them headers then you know to stay the hell away.

Easy solution to all this though. If you want your Steven Adams chat, come to The Niche Cache. Read out stuff, share it around, comment or message us. Make sure people know that if they’re serious about what they wanna read and what knowledge they wanna absorb then go to the people who are serious about what they write and ain’t just doing it for clicks and giggles. Also… support us on Patreon if you do coz the obvious downfall of not hitting that lowest common denominator is that it’s way harder for us to make any money so yeah… El Niche Cache on Patreon.


BOX SCORES

GAME FIVE at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (L 118-115):

29 MIN | 10 PTS (5/8 FG, 0/1 FT) | 4 REB (0 OFF) | 2 AST | 3 BLK | 4 PF


SLAM DUNKS

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