I’ve written in other spaces about Steven Adams and the value he brings to the Oklahoma City Thunder as a complementary star to Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but in Game 1 of their series against the Portland Trail Blazers, his role increased dramatically. A very low usage player throughout the season, especially compared to his contract and importance to the team, the Thunder worked to feature Adams more often in Game 1 in his matchup with former teammate Enes Kanter.
Part of getting the ball to Adams was throwing it to him in the post, where he’s a solid scorer but is by no means an above average playmaker. Simple passes are fine for Adams, but anything more advanced than that isn’t a part of his game, but he’s still able to use his strength to plow through defenders and his soft touch to float home baby hooks when needed. In most playoff matchups, dumping it in to Adams and letting him go to work would be a fine option, considering that offense is harder to come by in the postseason and even a 0.95 point per possession post-up is pretty solid. The post-ups become an issue in this specific matchup and have to do with maximizing possession efficiency with respect to the Thunder’s other options – namely, working more high pick-and-roll to take advantage of Kanter’s defensive weaknesses.
While Adams still has some modicum of a strength advantage against Kanter, as he showed on a few post-up possessions, it’s a smaller plus for the Thunder than Kanter’s lack of length and relatively poor positioning when defending in space. To his credit, Kanter defended better in Game 1 than most expected, picking up a few blocks at the rim and generally stymying the Thunder’s attack a number of times, but his years-long track record suggests that’s more of an outlier performance than a new norm. With respect to Adams, Kanter’s lack of length is most important, as he’s shown to be able to hit short floaters and push shots from just outside the immediate basket area. In Game 1, he hit all but one of those shots out of pick-and-roll, as Kanter didn’t have the length or vertical burst to both stop Westbrook’s drive to the rim and Adams’ short floater.
This is the shot that separates Adams from other offensive centers and brings his value up significantly, especially in tandem with Westbrook’s incessant rim attacks. The pair have developed a strong chemistry in pick-and-roll and complement each other very well; the best version of Westbrook lives at the rim, while Adams is able to provide a release valve by hanging out just outside the charge circle for these floaters. It’s not quite the same as a full-blown pick-and-pop, but provides similar advantages, with Adams giving Westbrook an outlet in case he gets into trouble at the rim. And unlike a pick-and-pop threat, if Westbrook puts the ball up on the rim, then Adams is a step away from exploding for an offensive rebound, something he does extremely well.
The Oklahoma City Thunder suffer greatly in the spacing department; their biggest weakness offensively is that Paul George is the team’s only true outside threat. It’s been a problem for them over the last few years, as general manager Sam Presti has usually focused on the defensive side of things over retaining the services of a three-point shooter. The playoffs are a game of weaknesses, and Presti has bet heavily over the last few years on building a defense devoid of weaknesses, even if it brings their offensive ceiling down. It feels odd to say that Adams, who really can’t shoot outside of the paint, provides “spacing” to the team’s offense, but the difference between only being able to shoot at the rim and being able to hit short hooks and floaters from 5-6 feet gives them a different kind of spacing. His efficiency from these areas and ability to rise over Kanter’s contest makes him a valuable component of their offensive attack, especially in pick-and-roll with Westbrook, and is something that should be featured more heavily as the Thunder move forward in this series. Eschewing post-ups, which play right into Kanter’s strengths, and adding more pick-and-roll to their attacking profile, will give the Thunder offense a boost they desperately need. Every fraction of a point is important in the playoffs, especially in a closely contested series, and Oklahoma City will want to maximize every trip down the floor if they’re going to take advantage of their very real opportunity to make the Conference Finals this season.