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.

People with power within Knicks reportedly “obsessed” with Masai Ujiri

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In the latest sign of dysfunction in New York, Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry didn’t show their face and talk to the media Saturday about the firing of coach David Fizdale. Instead, they sent interim head coach Mike Miller to a podium, by himself, to talk about the situation. It was awkward. It’s also not how well-run organizations handle things.

Mills and Perry are on the hot seat — and they should be. This 4-19 Knicks season is more on them and how this roster was built than Fizdale (who was not blameless in all this).

There have been rumors owner James Dolan may go after Raptors president Masai Ujiri to take over Knicks, and that is growing into an “obsession” with influential people, reports Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

Will the Knicks have a shot at landing Ujiri? That’s unclear. But once the Knicks started struggling last month, multiple Madison Square Garden people in positions of influence have been ‘obsessed’ with – and ‘enamored’ by – the Raptors executive, per SNY sources.

In order to land Ujiri, it will probably take significant money and full autonomy.

There is no evidence that Ujiri, the man who built Toronto into a champion, would seriously consider leaving the Raptors for the Knicks.

The real key to luring Ujiri to Madison Square Garden is “full autonomy.” No Knicks president has had it. Phil Jackson was told he had it, but he wasn’t able to bring in his people who pushed out some of the entrenched staff. Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to learn Mills and others would remain in positions of power.

Owner James Dolan has stepped back from involving himself in basketball decisions in recent years, will he take the next step and let someone else fully run his basketball operations side without any pushback or interference internally?

One thing to watch with the Knicks going forward: Do they make any trade deadline deals? (That market really opens up soon, on Dec. 15 players signed this summer can be traded.) If New York does make a trade, is it a short-term boost kind of move designed to get wins now and maybe help save certain executive’s jobs, or are they trades focused on the long-term building of a winner? Since Jackson was in charge, the Knicks have done a good job not trading away their first-round picks, this would be a poor time to change that trend.

 

Myles Turner block, Julius Randle missed free throw with 0.1 left gives Pacers one-point win

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For the Knicks, under interim coach Mike Miller, this was a step forward. New York had been blown out by 37+ points their last two games, and that helped cost David Fizdale his job, but here they were with a chance to send the game to overtime late.

For the Pacers, this is just a win.

But that win came down to the final play — a blocked shot by Myles Turner then a missed Julius Randle free throw with 0.1 on the clock gave Indiana the 104-103 win.

“You get in those games, you’ve got to make another play and we just didn’t make another play,” Miller said, via the Associated Press. “Loved the effort. That was fun.”

A Jeremy Lamb and-1  had the Pacers up by six, 104-98, with 5:17 left. The Pacers would not score again.

What kept the Pacers alive was their defense — the Knicks shot 2-of-15 in the final 5:05 of the game, then with everything on the line Myles Turner came up with the game-saving block on Michell Robinson.

Julius Randle got the offensive rebound and was fouled when he went back up. That sent Randle — the Knicks biggest offseason signing — to the free throw line with 0.1 on the clock and the chance to force overtime. Randle hit the first, but…

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but this feels like one for New York.

For the Pacers, they will just take the win, thank you very much.

 

Russell Westbrook’s third-straight triple-double powers Rockets past Suns

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HOUSTON (AP) — On a night where James Harden‘s shots weren’t falling for three quarters, the Houston Rockets got big performances from those in supporting roles until the star stepped up late to close out the victory.

Harden scored 18 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and Ben McLemore added 27 points to help the Rockets outlast the Phoenix Suns 115-109 on Saturday night.

Harden had a tough shooting night through three quarters and was 5 of 19 overall and 1 of 10 on 3s with 16 points before getting going in the fourth. The game was tied with about 7 minutes left, and he scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-6 run that made it 102-95.

“That’s how deep we are,” Harden said. “We have a really good team and guys that can make plays and knock down shots. More importantly we were focused on our defense.”

Russell Westbrook had 24 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his third straight triple-double and sixth this season. Harden finished 8 of 27, 3 of 17 on 3s and made 15 of 18 free throws.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 35 points after scoring a season-high 44 in an overtime victory at New Orleans on Thursday night.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams was proud of his team for staying in it until the very end.

“We have a mentality that we just don’t give in,” Williams said. “We’re playing young guys that are learning how to play against physical NBA men and that’s part of developing.”

The Suns cut the lead to five twice in the last 90 seconds, but both times Westbrook made a layup to extend the advantage. And the second time he was fouled on the shot and made the free throw to make it 114-106.

The Suns scored seven straight points, capped by a dunk from Kelly Oubre, to tie it at 85 with about 9 minutes left. After a timeout, Harden scored Houston’s first points in about three minutes on a layup to put Houston back on top.

It was tied again before Harden scored five points to give the Rockets a 94-89 lead. He stole the ball from Ty Jerome after that and was fouled by Booker on a drive, with Harden aggressively continuing forward and pushing Booker off the court. Harden later shoved Booker, and they both received technical fouls to the bewilderment of the Suns.

Harden made both free throws to make it seven points in a row and was fouled again after he stole the ball from Mikal Bridges. Harden made one of those free throws to make it 97-89.

“He finds a way to win the game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A lot of guys contributed. A lot of guys played well.”

 

Ben Simmons hits antother three, scores 34 points to lead 76ers past Cavaliers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Ben Simmons hit another 3-pointer, and his coach wants him to keep on firing.

Simmons hit his second career 3 and scored a career-high 34 points, and the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t need Joel Embiid‘s help to rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 141-94 Saturday night.

Simmons made 12 of 14 field goals, including his only 3-point attempt, and hit 9 of 12 free throws in 26 minutes to help Philadelphia improve to 11-0 at home.

“I was locked in,” Simmons said.

Simmons’ jump shot – or lack thereof – has been a hot topic in Philadelphia. He entered the season 0 for 17 from long range.

Coach Brett Brown has repeatedly said shooting is a part of Simmons’ game that will develop with time. After Saturday’s performance, Brown publicly upped the ante and called for more from his All-Star point guard.

“This is what I want,” Brown said. “I want a 3-point shot per game, minimum. … He will be liberated. His world will open up and, in many ways, so will ours.”

Embiid sat out with a left hip contusion.

Darius Garland had 17 points for the Cavaliers, who have lost six in a row and 12 of 13.

“They were going downhill on us all day long,” Cavaliers coach John Beilein said.

Philadelphia has been projected to be an NBA title contender, but the 76ers haven’t been able to consistently field its starting five of Simmons, Embiid, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. They have only started nine games together due to injuries and Embiid’s two-game suspension for fighting Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

The 76ers needed little more than Simmons in a dominant first half that ended with them ahead 77-36.

Simmons attacked the basket often and showed off a rarely seen mid-range game when he drained an 11-foot jumper with 6:04 left in the second quarter. That had 76ers fans cheering, but it was just an appetizer for Simmons.

With 3:41 left in the half, Simmons took a cross-court pass from Trey Burke and knocked down a 3 from the left wing. That send the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, and the roars continued when Simmons finished an alley-oop dunk from Burke on Philadelphia’s ensuing possession.

Simmons received a standing ovation at the next stoppage.

“I’m getting more comfortable learning my spots and just adjusting,” Simmons said. “I’m trying not to force it, trying to play the game I know how to play. Hard work pays off. Stay in the gym and keep working.”

Simmons finished the tremendous four-possession sequence with assists on Philadelphia’s next two trips, first to Horford for a 3-pointer and then to James Ennis III for a jumper.

Finally, Simmons ended the first half scoring with a 9-foot jumper for a 41-point lead entering the break.