OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Paul George scored 36 points to help the Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the Utah Jazz 116-108 in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series on Sunday night.
George set an Oklahoma City playoff record with eight 3-pointers, blowing past the previous record of five. He made eight of 11 shots from long range, and 13 of 20 shots overall. It was his first playoff game with the Thunder since being acquired in a trade with the Indiana Pacers in the offseason.
The Thunder recovered from a 16-4 deficit to tie it at 25 at the end of the first quarter. Oklahoma City led 54-48 at halftime behind 20 points from George and 14 from Westbrook.
George hit his seventh 3-pointer to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 79-66. George hit a deep 2-pointer to close the quarter and give the Thunder an 81-72 lead.
Alex Abrines hit two 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to give Oklahoma City a 92-80 lead and force Utah to call timeout. The Thunder held off a surge in the final minute.
Jazz: Mitchell made his first four shots, but just one of six the rest of the first half. … Made just eight of 22 shots in the second quarter.
Thunder: G Corey Brewer, who was questionable with a right knee sprain, started. … Anthony scored his 1,700th playoff point. … Oklahoma City made its first 17 free throws and didn’t miss one until the final minute.
James scored 14 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, including two 3-pointers, to give Cleveland a 78-68 lead. He was 6 for 6 from the field during that stretch. The Thunder responded with an 8-0 run to get back into the game. Cleveland took a 91-87 edge into the fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers took control in the fourth, and a layup by James after driving on George pushed the Cavaliers ahead 115-106 with 49 seconds to play.
The Thunder trimmed their deficit to five in the final minute and could have come closer, but Alex Abrines missed a 3-pointer, and Nance got free for a dunk to seal the win for Cleveland.
The Cavaliers led 62-57 at halftime. James had 16 points, four rebounds and five assists, and Smith had 15 points on five 3-pointers. Adams scored 15 points before the break for Oklahoma City.
Steven Adams doing dirty work that bolsters Russell Westbrook’s reputation, helps Thunder
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:
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:
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.
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.
NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.
Durant is better than George, sure. But Westbrook now is also better than the Westbrook who played with Durant. George might also fit better with Westbrook than Durant did, which can go a long way in overcoming the talent deficit.
For a star, George is exceptionally comfortable off the ball – important as Westbrook dove headfirst into controlling everything post-Durant last season. George can also be a lockdown defender. And when Westbrook sits, George can dominate the offense himself.
Plus, simply being a lesser player might help in some ways. While Durant and Westbrook countered each other for supremacy, George is clearly Westbrook’s sidekick. That understanding could help chemistry and, ultimately, performance.
The Thunder needed more spot-up shooting surrounding Westbrook and someone capable of creating when he sits. In George, they got both – for pennies on the dollar. The cost – Victor Oladipo (a fine player owed $84 million over the next four years) and Domantas Sabonis (the forgettable No. 11 pick last year) – was so low, Oklahoma City needn’t panic about George becoming a free agent in only one year. The Thunder could do enough damage just this season, also the final year of Westbrook’s contract unless he signs the offered super-max extension, to justify the trade.
The difference might be semantic, but we might be erring by treating Oklahoma City as merely an upgraded version of the team that lost in five games in the first round last year as opposed to a slightly reduced version of the team that was a perennial conference finalist when healthy.
Of course, this team has nobody as good as Serge Ibaka or James Harden were with the Thunder. But Oklahoma City boasts solid depth beyond its stars.
Patrick Patterson is the major addition, signed with the taxpayer mid-level exception. A stretch four and versatile defender, he should start – if healthy. I loved the signing when it occurred, but his subsequent knee surgery makes me wonder whether his low price tag is just due to being damaged goods. Patterson’s injury concern is the only reason I dropped the Thunder’s grade.
They also re-signed Andre Roberson to a reasonable three-year, $30 million contract. He’ll form a tenacious defensive duo with George and platoon with Alex Abrines, a dangerous shooter.
Down to minimum salaries, the Thunder still needed to find an NBA-caliber backup point guard – and did with Raymond Felton. The 33-year-old won’t necessarily solve Oklahoma City’s issues, but he should at least hold his own.
But Oklahoma City has already changed its entire paradigm. It’s no longer “Westbrook and the supporting cast.” It’s “Westbrook, George and the supporting cast.” To nab a star who transcends being grouped with Westbrook’s underlings without surrendering a single draft pick was remarkable.
For now, that’s more than enough.
Offseason grade: A
Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid headline NBA All-Rookie teams
Later Monday night, at the new NBA Awards show (did you forget that was coming?), the NBA Rookie of the Year will be announced.
In advance of that, the NBA released the All-Rookie Teams.
This was not a deep rookie class, making it a challenging vote. Also, a number of players came on the second half of the season, showing promise that made the process even tougher.
Two players were unanimous first-team choices: Malcolm Brogdon of the Bucks (the front-runner for ROY), and Dario Saric of the Sixers. Saric’s teammate Joel Embiid also made first team, but there was enough concern among voters (100 members of the NBA media, and full disclosure I had a vote) that he only played 31 games that seven voters had him on the second team, and 11 left him off entirely. A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.
Here is who made the cut (players got two points for a first-team vote, one point for a second-team vote).
2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE FIRST TEAM
Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee) 200
Dario Saric (Philadelphia) 200
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia) 171 Buddy Hield (Sacramento) 154 Willy Hernangomez (New York) 128