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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.

LeBron James scores season-high 40, leads Lakers past Zion Williamson, Pelicans

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James had 40 points and eight rebounds in his first career meeting with Zion Williamson while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their sixth straight victory, 118-109 over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

Anthony Davis had 21 points and 14 rebounds to remain unbeaten in his three meetings with his former team this season.

In the Lakers’ first game after an emotional memorial service for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center on Monday, James opened up a close contest with back-to-back buckets at the rim with about three minutes left. Danny Green sealed it for Los Angeles with his fifth 3-pointer with 51 seconds to play.

Williamson had 29 points and six rebounds in his first career showdown with James and Davis, his predecessor as the Pelicans’ centerpiece. In his 13th NBA game, Williamson scored at least 20 points for the ninth consecutive time, but managed only one field goal in the fourth quarter.

Brandon Ingram had 34 points against his former team, but just six in the final period as New Orleans lost for only the second time in seven games.

Williamson was still injured for the Pelicans’ first two meetings of the season with the Lakers, but the No. 1 overall pick’s delayed debut in Hollywood was as entertaining as everyone hoped. Williamson had several impressive dunks in his usual fearsome floor game, and only six missed free throws kept him from surpassing his career high of 32 points.

Davis is the leading scorer and rebounder in New Orleans franchise history, making six All-Star teams during his tenure. He went just 6 for 21 from the field in this meeting, failing to score 40 points against the Pelicans for the first time.

Lonzo Ball had 10 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and Josh Hart scored three points in their second return to face the Lakers, who traded them to New Orleans along with Ingram last July for Davis.

The Pelicans also got three first-round draft picks in their princely haul for Davis, who had requested a trade. Davis has been just as good as the Lakers hoped in propelling them back to NBA championship contention, while the Pelicans are getting an All-Star season from Ingram alongside Williamson in an increasingly potent core.

James scored 11 points in less than two minutes early in the third quarter to stretch the Lakers’ lead to 14 points, but Ingram scored 10 in the period to keep it close.

Alex Caruso provided the Lakers with his usual injection of energy in the fourth quarter, particularly with a stunning block of Ball’s shot at the rim that left Ball flat on his back. Caruso finished with eight points and eight assists.

Best in the East by far, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Bucks past Raptors 108-97

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 22 points and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 108-97 on Tuesday night in a matchup between the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Eric Bledsoe scored 17 points and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20. Milwaukee (50-8) was playing the second game of a back-to-back after winning in overtime at Washington Monday.

Antetokounmpo finished with eight assists, narrowly missing a triple-double.

Behind by 12 points late in the second quarter, the Bucks rallied to beat the Raptors in their first game in Toronto since losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last May, completing a disappointing collapse after winning the first two games of that series at home.

The Bucks beat the Raptors 115-105 when the teams met in Milwaukee on Nov. 2. They’ll face each other again in consecutive games on April 1 and 3.

Pascal Siakam scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet had 14 as the defending NBA champion Raptors lost for the second time in 19 games. Toronto was beaten at home for the first time since Jan. 12 against San Antonio, ending a nine-game run.

It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.

Lowry, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all scored 10 points for the Raptors.

Toronto trailed 84-71 to begin the fourth, but Davis scored five points as the Raptors closed the gap with a 7-0 spurt over the first 90 seconds of the final quarter.

VanVleet’s four-point play with 2:23 left cut it to 101-94, and the Raptors forced a steal on Milwaukee’s next possession but VanVleet missed a 3. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 at the other end, restoring the double-digit advantage.

Six of Toronto’s 10 field goals in the first quarter were 3-pointers, including a pair from Siakam. The Raptors led 27-25 after one.

Toronto was up 51-39, its biggest lead of the game, after OG Anunoby dunked over Antetokounmpo with 2:58 to go in the second. Milwaukee closed the quarter with an 11-1 spurt, cutting the deficit to 52-50 at halftime.

After missing 10 of 11 attempts from 3-point range in the second, the Bucks hit three in a row from distance during their closing surge. All five of Antetokounmpo’s points in the quarter came during that stretch.

Middleton made just one of five shots in the first half but went 3 for 3 in the third and scored nine points as the Bucks outscored the Raptors 34-19 to take an 84-71 lead into the fourth.

OG Anunoby dunks and Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t stop it (VIDEO)

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Pascal Siakam has gotten the lion share of accolades for making a leap with his game this season in Toronto. Deservedly so.

More quietly, OG Anunoby has made a leap as well, continuing his trajectory as an athletic wing, and this season he is attacking the rim with a fury. That includes dunking hard — and not even Giannis Antetokounmpo can stop it.

I have an issue with the comment here: He did not dunk on the Greek Freak. It’s not like Antetokounmpo was camped out in the paint and Anunoby went at and over him. Watch Antetokounmpo, he is at the top of the key when he sees Anunoby going to the rim and he makes a run to try and get the block — 99 percent of players watch that play and admire the dunk. Antetokounmpo made a colossal effort and just fell short. He wasn’t worried about ending up in a poster; he tried to make a play.

This is why Antetokounmpo gets some Defensive Player of the Year love — that hustle sparks the Bucks’ defense (best in the NBA this season, by a wide margin).

And on other plays it leads to this.

Paul George on twins Marcus, Markieff Morris: “They’re different, but they’re the same”

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George has given us the quote of the day.

For some quick context, last season Paul George played with Markieff Morris in Oklahoma City. This season, George’s Clippers team traded for the other Morris twin, Marcus Morris, at the deadline. When asked about them, George admitted to mixing them up — and then had a classic description of twins.

“It was weird at first, ‘cuz I would call [Marcus] ‘Keiff.’ It actually took a good week. It’s crazy. ‘What’s up Marcus? Nice to meet you.’ Then instantly after, ‘Hey Keiff!’ It’s gonna take a second…

“They’re different, but they’re the same.”

Um… yes, they are.

Both Morris twins live in Los Angeles now (and are expected to move in together). Marcus was traded to the Clippers at the deadline, while Markieff was waived and became a free agent, choosing to sign with the Lakers.

George had high praise for both of them.

“Markieff and Marcus, they are great glue guys,” George said. “They just know how to play the game. They fit right in, they bring toughness, hecka [good] locker room guys, both of them just great people. Great dudes.”

They’re the same that way. But different.