The Oklahoma City Thunder are down 2-1. Game 4 tonight in Salt Lake City is as close to a ‘must-win’ game as the typically down playing Thunder are willing to admit.
“I don’t wanna put that emphasis on this game being do or die,” Carmelo Anthony said at practice yesterday. “But we want to win this game.”
Steven Adams simply nodded when asked if Game 3 was a must-win. If Oklahoma City is going to turn this series around, it will have to start with him.
The seven foot center has been plagued by foul trouble in the previous two games, fouling out in Game 2 after playing only 22 minutes. Game 3 saw more of the same. While Adams did not foul out, he only logged 26 minutes.
That simply cannot happen.
“The thing I look at is all year there has never been two games in a row where Adams is in foul trouble,” Billy Donovan said yesterday. “That’s never happened.”
On the other end, the probable defensive player of the year in Rudy Gobert has forced the Thunder into playing away from the basket. Players like Russell Westbrook or even Jerami Grant, who thrive off getting to the basket, have been taken away in the series. Of course. Westbrook is a superstar and can still make an impact away from the paint, but it cannot be denied that the reigning MVP looks a little uncomfortable when going down hill.
Adams has not made that impact in these initial three games. With the Thunder’s center missing roughly twenty minutes of game time in two games — Adams logged 36 minutes in the Game 1 win without foul trouble — Utah has out rebounded Oklahoma City 37-25 on the offensive glass in the series.
On top of that, the paint scoring is just as unbalanced. 140-108 in the Jazz’s favor is not doing the Thunder any favors.
In the Game 1 win, the Thunder relied heavily on their three-point barrage, mostly from Paul George, especially in the second half. In both the third and the fourth quarters, Oklahoma City shot a higher percentage from three than they did inside the arc. This was one of the many reasons Donovan was not his usual optimistic self afterwards.
“We need to play better and not fall in love with the ball going through the hoop,” Donovan said after Game 1.
Game 2 was much of the same, two of the four quarters saw the Thunder shoot a higher percentage from deep than from mid-range or the paint. Not to mention that the attempts away from the paint were substantially more than inside the restricted area.
This is the Gobert effect. Oklahoma City has been forced to rely heavily on outside shooting. Luckily for the Thunder, they have multiple guys who can hit big shots, but this is not a recipe for success in a seven-game series.
Now when you flip sides, Adams has not forced a similar trend for the Jazz. Outside of that third quarter in Game 2 which saw the Thunder go on a 19-0 run — coincidentally with Adams off the floor — the Jazz have yet to have a quarter where they have shot worse than 45 percent from mid-range and the paint combined.
“He’s been, to be quite, honest, on the difficult end with some of these fouls,” Donovan added. “Again, I’m not saying they’re not fouls, but maybe fouls that could have been left alone or gone either way.”
Adams’ struggles with fouls have played a major part in his ineffectiveness. But despite this, when he has been able to be on the floor, he has yet to make the impact to force the Jazz away from their comfort zone.
This is not to say that Adams can’t make the adjustment. He has shown throughout his career to bounce back from difficult matchups. A big scoring night is not what the Thunder needs from Adams — of course that would help — but rather the defensive anchor that patrols the paint.
His largest adjustment may just be accepting how the series has been called by the officials and alter his game to avoid time off the floor.
This is all leading to a series which could very well see the Thunder heading back to Oklahoma City down 3-1. Players like Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony will be able to put up points in a variety of ways. Adams has his hands full with Gobert, but his game must step up if the Thunder want to make this a best of three series with two games left at Chesapeake Energy Arena.