Tramel: Grizzlies rout shows how much OKC Thunder needs Steven Adams
Steven Adams is the last man standing from those grand old Thunder-Grizzlies playoff series.
He-man basketball. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Kendrick Perkins and Zach Randolph. Tony Allen and Thabo Sefolosha. First team to 90 wins.
As a raw rookie in 2014, Adams was a breakout performer in the last of the three OKC-Memphis postseason throwdowns. He fit right in. Now Stone Cold is the only player left on either roster from those salad days.
And not even Adams was standing Friday in the NBA’s Orlando bubble. During a Thunder-Memphis matinee in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Adams sat on the Thunder bench, nursing a sore leg, his mask on, his hair down and his teammates springing a Titantic-sized leak.
The Grizzlies routed the Thunder 121-92, in a kooky game in which OKC led by 18 points late in the first quarter and trailed by 20 before the fourth quarter arrived.
But even the first quarter was a little concerning. Memphis was making shots. And the Grizzlies never stopped.
Memphis shot better than 50 percent in each quarter. This was not the product of an unsung Grizzly getting hot. No Michael Porter Jr. in this game. Almost every Memphis player produced at a high rate.
Center Jonas Valanciunas, freed from Adams leaning on him all game long, had 19 points, 11 rebounds and three missed shots. Rookie point guard Ja Morant consistently got to the rim and finished with 19 points and nine assists. Energetic wing Dillon Brooks scored every which way, making 10 of 18 shots en route to a game-high 22 points. Three Grizzlies off the bench reached double-digit scoring.
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The old battle axes from Thunder-Memphis series past would have been aghast at this defense.
Neither Billy Donovan nor Chris Paul was willing to blame Adams’ absence on the defeat. Everybody has problems. The Grizzlies just lost star forward Jaren Jackson Jr. for the season. The Thunder still was without Dennis Schröder. Nobody cares about your problems.
But listen to Donovan explain what went wrong with the defense, and you’ll see Adams’ shadow looming large.
“First thing that stood out, our pick-and-roll coverage, and our pursuit, that had something to do with it,” Donovan said. “They had a lot of points in the paint. I thought Valanciunas at times physically overwhelmed us at the basket.
“When we did bring help, we were late closing to shooters. With Brooks and Morant, show them a crowd, try to prevent them from getting into the teeth of the defense.”
Adams is a master against the pick-and-roll. Nobody physically overwhelms him. He’s a one-man crowd in the paint.
The Thunder, like most teams, needs all hands on deck to compete with the NBA’s best teams. But OKC really needs Adams, who maybe is behind only Paul in value, because of the defensive anchor he provides.
“He’s very important,” Danilo Gallinari said. “Everything that he’s been doing for us is amazing. Of course, we missed him. But I think he’s going to be back soon, and I think we’ll get back on track next game.”
Both Donovan and CP3 called the first quarter “fool’s gold,” because the Thunder got a bunch of swishes from players who generally don’t make them. Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and Hamidou Diallo combined to make five of six 3-pointers.
But even when OKC had a 37-19 lead, Memphis had made nine of 16 shots. And the defense eventually collapsed.
Leading 40-38, the Thunder allowed the Grizzlies to score on nine straight possessions.
Coming out of halftime, the Grizzlies scored on five straight possessions to turn a 63-60 lead into a 74-64 advantage.
Midway through the third quarter, Memphis again scored on five straight possessions to take a 15-point lead.
The Thunder had fewer stops than the autobahn.
“We’ve gotta come out and compete,” Paul said.
He’s right. This Thunder team ultimately is better defensively than offensively. It entered ranked 13th in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency.
Yet the Grizzlies made the Thunder look like mush. Memphis made 28 of 39 shots in the lane, scoring 67, counting foul shots. That ease of scoring doesn’t happen when Adams is in the game.
Hurry back, Stone Cold. This team can’t succeed without you.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.