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OKLAHOMA CITY — Steven Adams had work to do on Sunday. The San Antonio Spurs had made a habit of, and built a scheme around, paying little attention to the whereabouts of the Thunder center over the course of this second-round series. Whichever defender was technically assigned to Adams was instead occupying driving lanes that would have been valuable to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. No matter how Oklahoma City seemed to position its players, the lane appeared to fill with defenders.
“They were obviously trying to shut down KD, or overload on him as they do,” Adams said.
The paint only cleared when Adams began to speed up his segue from pick to roll. Some screens he slipped outright, diving toward the rim without ever really making contact with a defender. In other cases he quickly spun his way into open space, surprising the back line of the Spurs’ defense that may have otherwise rotated into his path. By shorting the pick-and-roll process by even that single beat, the Thunder stretched the window in which Adams found himself open and honed in on ways to exploit it.
Oklahoma City came out of timeouts with lobs set up for Adams and started quarters with designed rolls to get him the ball in their 111–97 series-tying Game 4 victory. The Thunder creators, and Westbrook in particular, were privy to notice the overcommitting defense they would encounter and sought Adams out quickly. Game planning was bolstered by situational awareness. So long as the Spurs committed so much attention to Durant and Westbrook as they came around every screen, Adams could be found for quick dunks at the defense’s expense. Westbrook was resolved to find his open teammate after glossing over the same opportunity time after time in Game 3.
“[Adams] had one shot last game,” Westbrook said. “And that was on me.”
He finished with eight shots from the field (and six free-throw attempts) in the Game 4 win, all while creating enough leverage to force the Spurs into defensive adjustment. Adams didn’t just wreak havoc on pick-and-rolls, after all; when setting off-ball screens for Durant, Adams poked at the same structural vulnerability from a different angle. San Antonio eventually resorted to switching on those picks as a direct response to the shots that Adams had created.
That David West ended up guarding Durant on so many possessions down the stretch was not some random glitch. Adams would set a down screen (one facing the baseline) for Durant and trigger a switch in the process. Then the Thunder would clear out to allow one of the game’s most potent isolation scorers to cook against a shorter, slower player out of his element and eight years his senior.
“That’s what the difference was,” Adams said. “[Before], my man just leaves me and I’m just wide open. They just double Kevin or Russ. All [the change] does is keep them honest so my guy doesn’t actually go. They ended up switching that down pick on Kev, so we just went from there. That’s our advantage.”
When Durant let loose the barrage of shots that ensured the Thunder’s Game 4 win, he stood on the legwork that Adams had established throughout. This wasn’t hero ball. It was a beautiful solo with a fully articulated prelude—structurally sound and melodically complete. Durant knew the collective effort it had taken to produce that kind of opportunity.
“My teammates did a great job of sticking with me, finding me, and giving me easy baskets and screening for me and sacrificing their bodies for me,” Durant said. “I’m definitely grateful for it. So after they do all that, it’s on me to finish a shot and just stick to the fundamentals that I have been practicing since I was a kid.”
Durant finished nearly everything in the fourth, dropping 17 points in that frame to bring his total to 41 overall. He towered over every defender the Spurs threw at him and flicked his wrist above their desperate contests. There wasn’t much more to be done. One of the best shooters in the world was in fine form and his team had done everything necessary to ensure quality looks.
“We created a lot of open shots for each other,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “That’s what you want to be able to do.” Donovan was speaking to the way that Durant and Westbrook trusted in players like Adams, but could just as well have been praising the way Adams came full circle to facilitate for Durant. His screens, and the shots that became of them, changed the game for the Thunder. So, too, did the extra possessions Adams created out of thin air.
Over the course of just two minutes in the fourth quarter, for example, Adams helped to create three extra scoring opportunities. First he fought through West and Kawhi Leonard to pull down a rebound off a Durant free throw. Durant went on to hit a three-pointer after the kick-out from Adams. Two possessions later, Adams occupied West and Boris Diaw once the ball went up, allowing Enes Kanter to gain favorable position and a put-back layup. The next trip down the floor, Adams drew a loose ball foul from a crowd of three Spurs on a wild Westbrook miss.
To generate new possessions and make the most of them represents a profound influence, and that’s before accounting for the versatile defense that helped to keep the Spurs at bay. Adams was magnificent. His play registered in a way that fueled the Thunder’s home crowd, filled the box score and even populated highlights. Watch any big, signature play of Oklahoma City’s win and you’re likely to find Adams off to the side and nearly out of frame, having set the screen or triggered the roll that made it all possible.