Thickly-bearded, long-locked Steven Adams, the mountainous Kiwi man that patrols the middle of the floor for the Thunder was in one of his frequent positions. He caught the ball at the high post, right at the elbow.
Typically Adams receives passes there and moves the ball to a teammate with a deft pass. Midway through the first quarter on Wednesday night, however, something very unusual happened to Adams at his usual spot.
Adams’ point guard, the 6-foot-1 Chris Paul, rushed over just in front of OKC’s 7-foot-tall center and planted himself squarely next to the Los Angeles Laker marking Adams. Using the pick that Paul swiftly set, Adams curled around his man, dribbled the ball and slammed home an easy dunk. For once, the Thunder’s screener was the screenee.
“About time, bro,” Adams chuckled. “We screen all the time. It’s about time those guys showed us some love.”
Paul actually delivered that favor of a screen once more in the Thunder’s 105-86 thumping of the Western Conference’s number one seed, an honor the Lakers locked in before the game even began. It was the fewest points the Thunder has allowed to the Lakers since April 11, 2016, when it held Los Angeles to just 79 points. As always, Adams figured prominently in the Thunder’s defensive effort against one of the very best – and very biggest – teams in the NBA.
For the game the Thunder was plus-6 on the glass against the formidable front line of LeBron James (6-foot-8, 250), Anthony Davis (6-foot-10, 253), JaVale McGee (7-feet, 270), Markieff Morris (6-foot-8, 245) and Kyle Kuzma (6-foot-8, 220). Going against each of those physical Lakers forwards and centers, Adams himself finished with seven rebounds, but also added 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go with two assists and just one turnover.
“The main thing was really getting rebounds and (Adams) did a great job with that,” said starting shooting guard Lu Dort. “Then finishing around the basket and getting fouled and making his free throws, he did a really great job today.
Adams actually outscored the Lakers starting center (McGee – 6 points) and power forward (Davis - 9 points in 29 minutes) combined. Defensively, he’s often the most important communicator on the floor because of his position as the final line of protection and role as the man who most often defends the screener. Tonight against the Lakers he was relied upon time and again to first hustle back in transition, then call out coverages and close out defensive possessions with box outs.
“We just tried to stick to the game plan. We tried to keep those guys off the line as much as possible,” said Paul. “We tried to build a wall with LeBron when he was pushing it. Just trying to make it tough on them.”
“There was a real attention to detail and focus on those things,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan.
In addition to a frustrated the Lakers’ high-octane offense, Davis was strapped to the sideline for much of the game partly because Adams drew 8 fouls against his opposition. In the beginning of the game, Adams was setting up shop early in possessions with deep seals down by the rim. McGee and Davis had no choice but to wrap him up or else allow an easy basket. Later, as the game wore on, Adams got more chances to finish with hook shots around the rim, having worn down the Lakers in his relentless pursuit of prime real estate on the floor.
The result was the Thunder actually outscoring the Lakers in the paint, 46-44, with both teams taking just 38 shots inside the lane. Coming into the game, Los Angeles was averaging 52.8 points in the paint per game with a plus-7.2 differential in paint scoring.
“We were trying to get a lot of penetration, just because of the coverages,” said Adams, who added three hook shots on the night, keeping him in the top 10 in the NBA in that category. “We tried to take advantage of the coverages and get a lot of paint touches and I managed to get a few seals.”
Adams did all of this damage to the veteran, battle-tested and vertically gifted Lakers despite the fact that his fellow Thunder big men were facing adversity. Mike Muscala missed the game while in the concussion protocol. Backup center Nerlens Noel played just 18 minutes and fouled out. On top of that, Adams left the game with 8:39 to go in the third quarter, going back to the locker room for more than 7 minutes of game action when he otherwise would have been in his normal rotation.
Adams scored on a ridiculously tough lefty layup over McGee to give the Thunder an 11-point lead, but as he came back to the ground the two big men got their feet tangled. His ankle and knee buckled and he was slow to get up. He barreled down the floor for a few possessions before heading off to the sideline. It was unconfirmed which part of the leg Adams hurt, but after the game it was clear his sense of humor was still intact.
“An appendage,” was as much as Steven Adams would disclose when asked which part of his leg got hurt.
With eight points in the fourth quarter, Adams helped seal the deal against a Western Conference foe that had eluded the Thunder during their three previous meetings. He shook off the size advantage the Lakers have over most teams, stood tall for his teammates and fellow big men and shrugged away a very awkward fall and got back into action with alacrity.
“I fell over, hurt myself, found out I made the bucket and then it just healed, mate,” Adams explained, with some faux mysticism. “That’s how it goes.”
Just another day in the bubble for the Thunder’s big guy: organizing the defense, doing the dirty work, finishing around the rim and keeping the jokes flying.
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