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.

DeMar DeRozan scores 36, Raptors top Magic 131-112 for 6th in row

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 36 points and Cory Joseph had 15 points and 13 assists as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 131-112 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

DeRozan, selected the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, set the pace early by scoring 18 in the first quarter. Joseph added six rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Raptors (45-29).

Elfrid Payton had 22 points and nine assists for Orlando (27-47). Evan Fournier added 20 points, and Nikola Vucevic had 12 points and 15 assists.

It was the first game between the teams since the Raptors traded Terrence Ross to the Magic for Serge Ibaka in February. Ross finished with 17 points and two rebounds, while Ibaka had 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors took a 99-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRozan’s basket gave Toronto a 19-point lead with 8:15 to go in the third. But the Magic, winners of seven games this season after falling behind by double digits, fought back.

Bismack Biyombo made a pair of free throws to cut Toronto’s lead to five with 12 seconds left in the period.

But after DeRozan hit a jumper to widen the lead to seven, Delon Wright stole the inbounds pass and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Toronto its double-digit lead back going into the fourth.

Payton paced the Magic surge, hitting all four field goals he attempted in the quarter. He led all scorers with 10 points in the period, as Orlando outscored Toronto 32-26.

After four ties and seven lead changes in the game’s first 15 minutes, the Raptors took charge over the final nine minutes of the second quarter to take a 73-57 lead into halftime.

The Raptors hit all four 3s they attempted in the quarter, three by Norman Powell, who led all scorers with 11 points in the period.

Eight different Toronto players scored in the quarter as the Raptors outscored the Magic 33-17 over that nine-minute stretch and led by as many as 18 points.

The Magic cooled off from a torrid shooting pace in the first quarter to a still-respectable 48 percent in the second. Fournier led the way with nine points in the period.

Toronto led 35-34 after a first quarter that featured terrific shooting by both teams.

The Magic led by seven points early as Ross hit four of his first five shots and Aaron Gordon poured in 10 points. Orlando shot 13 for 29 (62 percent) from the field in the period.

DeRozan was 7 for 10 from the field in the opening quarter and hit his only 3-point attempt.

Toronto shot 15 for 24 (63 percent) as each starter had at least one field goal in the first period.

TIP-INS

Magic: Ross received a standing ovation after a tribute commemorating his 4 1/2 seasons in Toronto was played on the scoreboard during the first timeout. . Orlando has hit a 3 in 812 consecutive games, the fifth-longest active streak in the NBA. . The Magic had a 66-58 edge on points in the paint.

Raptors: DeRozan’s conference player of the week award was his fourth of the season. He averaged a league-best 33.3 points in three games last week. . Valanciunas pulled down the 3,000th rebound of his career in the second quarter, second to Chris Bosh (4,776) on Toronto’s all-time list. . The 73 points were the most the Raptors have scored in the first half this season.

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 as Spurs dismantle ailing Cavaliers, 103-74

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 on Monday night in a showdown that turned into a major letdown for the defending NBA champions.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs, who won their fifth straight.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Cavaliers star LeBron James was injured late in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the base of his neck. He remained on the bench for a while receiving medical attention, then headed toward the locker room and didn’t return to the game.

His status was not immediately known.

Cleveland has been out of sync recently, losing three of five, and those struggles only got worse against San Antonio. The Spurs led by as many as 33 points to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league’s best record entering a home showdown with the Warriors on Wednesday.

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than sit them for rest, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of its second rout in the past two weeks.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt and remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench. He left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout.

James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Spurs held the Cavaliers scoreless for three minutes after San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was issued a technical foul during a timeout with 6:38 remaining in the first half.

Leonard hit a right-handed runner as the second quarter closed to give the Spurs a 64-40 lead.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers. . Cleveland F Kyle Korver missed his third straight game with a sore left foot, and the team plans to sit him for several games to see if rest and treatment helps. Korver will sit out Thursday in Chicago and Friday at home against Philadelphia before being re-evaluated, a team spokesman said. The shooting specialist missed seven games earlier this month with an inflamed tendon in his foot. . G Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O’Neal has 28,596 career points. . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding its opponents to an average of less than 100 points for the 22nd straight season. . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

 

Russell Westbrook dominates final minutes, hits game winner for Thunder (VIDEO)

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This game looked over. The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take the loss.

Then Russell Westbrook happened.

He scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, then capped it off hitting the game winner for the Thunder (video above). For the game-winner, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender, a smart play when you have a guy this talented.

It was the kind of game that the Westbrook for MVP crowd will point to — he had 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and he absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game (he shot 5-of-9 down the stretch).

This was Westbrook’s 37th triple-double of the season, and the Thunder are 30-7 when he does reaches that mark. Westbrook takes heat in some quarters for “empty stats” or trying to pad his numbers, but the fact is the Thunder are 11-24 when he doesn’t put up the huge numbers and carry the offense. If you’re going to define “MVP” by value to his team, it’s hard not to choose Westbrook this season, this team is toast without him.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).