Steven Adams exactly the player, personality Oklahoma City Thunder need him to be

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BOSTON – Steven Adams arrived at Notre Dame Prep, as his first American coach put it, “with a guitar and a knapsack.”

Ryan Hurd, who coaches the Massachusetts basketball powerhouse, knew his team needed a center, and the highly touted Adams certainly was one. Otherwise, Hurd didn’t know what to expect from Adams, a mid-year transfer.

That uncertainty must have been multiplied for Adams, a native New Zealander who’d just moved to a new country and had a game against Nerlens Noel looming just a few days later.

On that first night at Notre Dame Prep, Adams was relaxing in the school’s game room with his new teammates, who, at the time, were really like strangers.

“I got challenged,” Adams said with a shrug, as if that explains what came next.

First, he won a game of ping pong, dazzling everyone with an array of spin serves. Then, he won in pool, banking in shots off multiple rails. Finally, he sat down on the couch, picked up his guitar and strummed “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Pressure to fit into a new and challenging environment? Hardly.

“I don’t think he understands it enough to care,” Hurd said. “…I think he has an ability to have fun in most situations, and he has an ability to entertain himself.

“I don’t see the grind of the NBA season wearing on him as bad as it might some other people.”

That’s an ideal skill, considering the 35-10 Thunder are on pace to place Adams – the No. 12 pick in the 2013 draft – in an uncharted intersection of competitive pressure and draft prestige.

Oklahoma City, with its Western Conference-best record, faces the glaring spotlight of a championship hunt. That does not make it easy to integrate Adams, who was a well-regarded prospect mostly due to his upside.

Most players drafted in the lottery can ease into a role on a team still finding its footing. That’s obviously not the case for Adams and the Thunder.

No rookie has been picked so high and been on a team so good since Paul Westphal was the No. 10 pick by the Boston Celtics in 1972 and then helped them to a 68-14 record as a rookie.

But the Celtics went 56-26, the NBA’s fourth-best record, the year prior and earned their No. 10 slot in a 13-pick first round.* The Thunder were too good to draft No. 12 themselves, netting the lottery selection in the James Harden trade.

*The NBA had 17 teams at the time, but four of them forfeited their first round picks to select in the 1971 hardship draft.

In modern draft history, Adams is unmatched.

Of course, teams on this level are judged not by regular-season record, but by championships. Darko Milicic was the No. 2 pick of the Detroit Pistons in 2003, and they won a championship his rookie year.

But Darko barely played. Adams is a rotation regular for the Oklahoma City, averaging 15.3 minutes per game and has played all 45 contests.

These aren’t just gifted minutes, either. The Thunder already had a starting center (Kendrick Perkins) and a backup center (Nick Collison).

“We have a good team. There’s some guys that don’t play on our team that probably have earned some minutes, but it’s hard to get minutes for everybody,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “But Steven has done a great job. He’s active. He wants to get better. He studies the game with our coaches, and I see him improving as the years go on.”

Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo have separated themselves from the pack in the Rookie of the Year race, but Adams leads first-year players with 2.0 win shares. Though that indicates the flaws of the statistic – Adams is seventh among rookies in the PER-based value added, a still respectable, but not elite, mark – it also points to Adams’ overlooked value.

He leads the Thunder in rebounding percentage (minimum: 50 minutes) and ranks second to Serge Ibaka in block percentage. But Adams’ most-elite skill is drawing fouls.

Of course, he’s been on the receiving end of more than his fair share of notable flagrant fouls this season.

From Nate Robinson:

And Vince Carter:

And Jordan Hamilton:

And Larry Sanders:

But Adams seems truly skilled at drawing even common fouls.

Only Dwight Howard, whom teams frequently foul intentionally, has played as much as Adams and has a higher free-throw-attempt rate.

And Adams is cashing in. After shooting 44 percent from the line at Pittsburgh last year, he’s making a reasonable 66 percent of his free throws this season.

Plus, on a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, getting into the bonus quicker is a huge asset. Try defending those superstars without a foul or two to give.

Adams’ basic numbers – 3.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game – are modest, but he’s proving to be an excellent fit with the Thunder.

That says as much about his unique demeanor – which has apparently remained unchanged since going pro – as his basketball skills.

Two years ago at Notre Dame Prep, Hurd quickly learned how Adams combines both attributes to ease into a new situation – no matter how high the stakes around him. In that first game against Nerlens Noel, Adams more than held his own:

“So that guy’s going to be a top-five pick?” Hurd said Adams asked him after the game.

“Yeah, I think so,” Hurd replied.

“Well, he needs a jump shot,” Adams said.

The Thunder are asking a lot from Adams, not in minutes or usage, but to make the transition from lottery pick to role player on a contender.

He might be just quirky enough, just brash enough and just good enough to deliver.

Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers completes pass to become part owner of Bucks

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Aaron Rodgers is regularly be seen courtside at Milwaukee Bucks games, having professed his love of the sport many times. Here was there Friday night for the Bucks’ Game 3 win, sitting courtside with girlfriend Danica Patrick.

This time, he was doing it as part owner of the team.

Milwaukee announced between the first and second quarters that the Packers QB1 is now part-owner of the Bucks, having bought a minority stake in the team.

“I have proudly called Wisconsin my home for the past 13 years, and I am thankful for the friendships and the opportunities I have been given to live and play here,” Rodgers in a released statement. “I am excited and honored to deepen my connection to the region by joining Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, Jamie Dinan, Mike Fascitelli and the ownership group of the Milwaukee Bucks. As a huge fan of the NBA and the sport of basketball, this is a dream come true for me, and I look forward to furthering my affinity for Wisconsin sports as a minority owner in a team I love and support.”

Rodgers is a California native who attended Cal in the Bay Area for college and now — like many an NBA player — splits his time between living where he works in Wisconsin and Southern California.

This is a smart time to buy into the Bucks — and not just because they won Friday. Milwaukee moves into a brand new building next season which should generate a lot more revenue for the franchise. Plus, the Bucks are poised to make a leap forward in the East as a team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast (likely led by a new coach next season), which will lead to more revenue as they become a team to see on the road, one that fills buildings.

Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.