This has been evidenced repetitively this season but there are two occasions that were especially glaring. Nov. 5 versus the New Orleans Pelicans and Monday evening, Nov. 12 versus Phoenix.
Against New Orleans, the Thunder were coming off consecutive wins after a (0-4) start. Adams finished the game with 18 points and 8 rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting. He also held the highest plus/minus statistic on the Thunder. The dominance came very early in the game on both ends of the floor. On defense, as Anthony Davis’ primary defender, he held the perennial NBA All-Star to 20 points and 8 rebounds. Doesn’t sound too bad, huh? Well, holding a player that makes 50 percent of his shots on an average night to 35 percent shooting is praise-worthy. Davis got his points but at what cost? Those missed shots were empty possessions for his team. Adams was dominating the game.
By halftime, Steve scored an efficient 10 points on perfect shooting. Their inside game was working, but after Adams subbed back in at the 6:42 mark of the second quarter, a once 10 point lead slipped to four. As common sense would point towards going back to what worked for OKC in the first quarter with Adams, his team chose to resort to contested jumpers instead. Adams only got one touch in the final six minutes of the quarter, while OKC’s shooting percentage plummeted. The Pelicans outscored the Thunder 35-26 in the quarter and went into halftime with a 63-62 lead.
It was clear what went wrong.
After some clear halftime adjustments, OKC started the half the same way they started the game; with Adams. Two minutes into the half, Adams made a turnaround jumper and on the next possession, 30 seconds later, he hit a layup. At this point, he was 7-for-7 from the field and had 14 points. Still perfect on the night, Adams made two more buckets around the rim. All the while, he defended at an elite level in the paint and sometimes, on the perimeter as well. They went from trailing by one at halftime, to leading 100-86 by the end of the third.
Adams got two more shot attempts and missed them in the fourth quarter, which is when the Thunder completely abandoned their inside game. New Orleans went on another run late in the game, predicated off paint scoring. As result, OKC had to claw out a 122-116 victory.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have a bad habit of going away from what works for them early in the game and it’s perplexing.
The same thing happened on Nov. 12 against the Phoenix Suns in a 118-101 victory. It wasn’t as detrimental, due to Paul George having the best 3-point shooting night of the season where he was 6-for-10 for 32 points. Dennis Schröder and Jerami Grant also combined for 30 points and the Thunder as a team shot 47.6 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from three.
The narrative was basically the same for Adams, though. He got off to a hot start, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting. After Adams checked back in around the 6:40 mark of the second per usual, he only had three shot attempts and made two.
After being up 80-58 with 6:37 remaining in the third period, the Suns went on a 28-13 run up to the 7:57 mark of the fourth. Adams checked in 30 seconds later and scored within three seconds, in the paint. That bucket jump-started a 23-14 run to end the game for OKC’s seventh win in eight.
Steven Adams is not the best big man in basketball, nor is he the best player on the Thunder but in certain matchups, he’s the most impactful. When Adams gets things going in the paint, he attracts more attention, which opens things up for shooters like Paul George, midrange Russell Westbrook, Alex Abrines, Dennis Schröder, and Patrick Patterson to get things going. Even then, the Thunder shouldn’t be exclusive to those shots. Keep feeding the ball into Adams for the guaranteed bucket periodically throughout the game.
Don’t fix what’s not broken. Adams averages 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t average 22. That’s realistically 4-to-6 more shots for the big man, which isn’t very demanding. The Thunder may be holding Adams back from being an All-Star and it would behoove them to change that.