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Steven Adams doing dirty work that bolsters Russell Westbrook’s reputation, helps Thunder

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DETROIT – A belief gained steam earlier this season that players perform worse when playing with Russell Westbrook.

Former Thunder players Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were having career years with the Pacers. Ex-Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter was thriving with the Knicks. Meanwhile, hyped Thunder newcomers Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were struggling. Oklahoma City stumbled to a 4-7 start.

This indictment of Westbrook also effectively served to invalidate his MVP case last season. Westbrook’s Thunder won fewer games (47) than James Hardens’ Rockets (55). Naming Westbrook MVP implicitly acknowledged he had lesser teammates than Harden. But what if Westbrook were the problem with his teammates all along? Nobody could take away Westbrook’s MVP, but it sure was getting re-litigated.

What does Westbrook make of that narrative?

“I don’t make nothing of it. Through this ear,” Westbrook, raising his left index finger to his left ear, “out this one.”

Westbrook lifted his right index finger to his right ear then pointed out – incidentally, toward Steven Adams‘ locker.

A player’s success depends on far more context than whether or not he plays with Westbrook. Perhaps, nobody better illustrates than than Adams, who has spent his entire career with Westbrook and the Thunder.

Coming off a down season, Adams is having a career – and unique – year.

Last year’s Thunder were still built to win with Kevin Durant. His departure left them without enough scoring and floor spacing, deficiencies that compounded each other.

Adams tried to compensate. He developed his floater and posted up more. But those extra shots were largely inefficient, a symptom and cause of Oklahoma City’s overextended offense.

With George and Anthony in town, Adams has returned to the grungy role that serves him so well.

That starts with rebounding, where Adams is producing historically quirky numbers.

He leads the NBA in offensive-rebounding percentage (17.8), but he ranks just 148th – behind Stephen Curry, James Harden and J.J. Barea – in defensive-rebounding percentage (13.8).

A problem on the defensive end? Not at all. The Thunder defensively rebound much better with Adams on the floor (78.7%, equivalent of seventh in the league) than when he sits (76.1%, equivalent of 27th in the league).

Adams contributes on the defensive glass by boxing out, sometimes to absurd degrees. Using the full force of his 7-foot, 255-pound frame, Adams sticks opponents.

“My whole mindset is just to hit them as hard as I can,” Adams said. “Really. Because it’s more just a psyche thing. Because no one likes getting hit. I don’t like getting hit. So, you get hit quite hard, then you’ll kind of second guess like, ‘Maybe, I’ll just take a couple steps back.” So, make the job in the long run more easier.”

Does it work?

“They all brace,” Adams said. “Everyone always braces, because I come in quite hot when I come in for a defensive box out.”

A few of his box outs:

Adams is hardly the first player to grab more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. Jason Maxiell did it with the 2009 Pistons, though he’s the only player to do so in the previous 15 years.

But the spread between Adams’ offensive and defensive rebounding is dramatic.

The 4.0-percentage-point difference between Adams’ defensive-rebounding percentage (13.8) and offensive-rebounding percentage (17.8) has been surpassed by only Mike McGee and neared by nobody else:

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But McGee was a plucky wing for the mid-80s Lakers. Adams is a center, far more heavily involved in rebounding.

On scale, Adams’ season is unprecedented by a wide margin.

He’s averaging 3.8 defensive rebounds and 5.2 offensive rebounds per game – a difference of 1.4. That difference is nearly three times larger than anyone else’s:

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Adams’ tenaciousness on the offensive glass shows his ability to grab rebounds himself. But he has no problem letting teammates grab defensive rebounds. As he sees it, he usually guards the opponent’s best offensive rebounder. So, he can best help his team secure the defensive rebound by boxing out.

“My whole thing is we need to get onto the next possession,” Adams said. “Because I don’t want to play defense. It’s so f—ing difficult, mate. So, as long as we get the ball and we can stop playing defense, that’s great.”

But Adams boxing out while a teammate grabs the rebound doesn’t help Adams in the box score. Does that ever bother him?

“Since I’ve been over here, I’ve noticed that America is very stat-driven with a lot of sports,” said Adams, a New Zealand native. “I don’t know. I guess it could sway a lot of the kids growing up in this environment. Overseas, you tend not to see it at all.”

It probably doesn’t hurt that Adams is just starting a four-year, $100 million contract extension. Even if he doesn’t care about his numbers, NBA executives might. But Adams doesn’t need to chase financial security.

Does he have location security, though?

If George re-signs and Anthony opts in next summer, the Thunder’s roster could get too costly. Just Westbrook, George, Anthony, Adams and minimum-salary players would push Oklahoma City into the luxury tax.

And that doesn’t even account for above-minimum players with guaranteed salaries next season: Andre Roberson ($10,000,000), Alex Abrines ($5,455,236), Patrick Patterson ($5,451,600), Kyle Singler ($4,996,000) and Terrence Ferguson ($2,118,840).

Unless they avoid the tax this season – unlikely, considering they’re $13,313,518 north of the tax line – they’ll also be assessed the repeater rate next season.

Will ownership really cover such large costs? Could Adams eventually be the odd man out?

His rebounding and versatile defense are so important to this team, especially its stars.

“He make life easy out there,” said Anthony, who resisted moving from small forward to power forward until joining Adams in Oklahoma City.

Westbrook’s appreciation is self-evident. Adams’ box-outs helped Westbrook grab numerous rebounds that went toward his legacy-defining triple-doubles and MVP.

Now, Adams is showing how context beyond being Westbrook’s teammate matters. With George and Anthony drawing attention on the perimeter, Adams is getting all the way to the rim more often on pick-and-rolls rather then settling for less-efficient floaters. He doesn’t need to post up as often, because the Thunder have better options.

The rest of the narrative was overly simplistic and rushed, anyway.

Oladipo got into the best shape of his life and developed a highly effective pull-up 3-pointer (that, yes, he can use more without Westbrook). Sabonis is just 21, an age when many players improve rapidly. Kanter is getting more attention for starting in New York than he was for coming off the bench in Oklahoma City, but his production this season isn’t significantly outside his career baseline. Paul George found such a nice groove, he became an All-Star. Anthony, whose decline is probably tied to aging more than anything, is settling in as third option.

Are there challenges in playing with the ball-dominant, triple-double-chasing, notoriously intense Westbrook? Absolutely.

But that’s what makes a player like Adams, who unselfishly complements the Thunder superstar, so valuable.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac suffers torn ACL in left knee

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Jonathan Isaac, who returned from a left knee injury to play for Orlando in the bubble, has torn his left ACL and is out for the remainder of this season. And likely the next one.

It was a non-contact injury that occurred when Isaac drove into the paint Sunday, tried to plant on his left leg, and felt his knee buckle under him.

Isaac had been in the news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds.

It’s a blow to the Magic, who believe Isaac is one of the cornerstones of their future. He was having a breakout season until he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and a bone bruise back in January. Now comes this. Teammate Aaron Gordon said he was in tears when the injury happened.

All those injuries came in a season Isaac was making a leap on the court. On offense, he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. However, his bigger impact is on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He might have made the All-Defensive team if healthy.

Now, it will be a couple of years before we get to see Isaac on the court again.

Battle of the MVPs sees Antetokounmpo score 36, Harden and Westbrook get win

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets used strong defense down the stretch for a 120-116 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday night.

It was the 36th straight game with at least 20 points for Westbrook, who led Houston’s offense on a night James Harden scored 24.

Harden called their defense on Sunday night “very important” to the victory.

“Throughout the course of the game we played some really good defense,” he said. “They’re a good offensive team but we got stops when we needed to.”

Houston tied an NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a regulation game with 61, making 21 of them, and forced 22 turnovers.

“I think our execution, our certainty in what we wanted to do wasn’t where it needs to be and that starts with me,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “So, I think a lot of tonight’s on me.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 36 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists for Milwaukee. He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to have 15 games with at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a season in the last 50 years.

Khris Middleton scored 27 points and Brook Lopez added 23 as the Bucks missed a chance to clinch the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee led by one in the fourth quarter before Lopez scored the first four points of a 7-0 run that was capped by a 3 from Middleton to make it 112-104 with about 3 minutes remaining.

But Houston scored the next nine points, highlighted by a 3 and a steal from P.J. Tucker and a block by Harden on Antetokounmpo, to go on top 113-112 about a minute later.

“Usually when we’re up six two minutes to go, we usually close the game out,” Antetokounmpo said. “But we didn’t do that today, so we’ve got to learn from it and got to keep moving.”

Lopez ended Houston’s run with a basket in the paint to make it 114-113 with less than a minute to go.

Westbrook made two free throws before a shot by Antetokounmpo left Milwaukee up 116-115 with 16.5 seconds remaining.

Westbrook made two more free throws and Danuel House stole a pass from Antetokounmpo and was fouled. He added two free throws to leave Houston up 119-116 with 14 seconds left.

Middleton missed two 3-point attempts after that to allow Houston to hold on for the victory.

Harden liked the tenacity his team showed in fighting back from the late deficit.

“Things weren’t going our way, we weren’t making shots, but we just stuck with it,” he said.

Westbrook agreed.

“Adversity showed up and we showed out,” he said.

The Rockets were up by two after a basket by Westbrook with about 1 ½ minutes left in the third quarter. Antetokounmpo and Kyle Korver hit late 3s to take a 90-89 lead into the fourth quarter.