LOS ANGELES — Clippers point guard Darren Collison drove the middle of the lane, his man beaten, and rose to drop the ball in the goal.
Then Steven Adams appeared, seemingly in midair, and swatted the ball out of Collison’s hands like a pop-bottle rocket. The ball shot back toward the opposite basket. Think a Titleist jumping off Bubba Watson’s tee.
The Thunder’s subsequent possession led to a Caron Butler 3-pointer and gave OKC a 93-92 lead Friday night. The Thunder went on to beat L.A. 118-112 in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals and put OKC back on track to win the series.
All seems right in Boomtown. The Thunder is getting better and better, just at the best time.
Russell Westbrook is playing the best basketball of his career. Serge Ibaka, too. A Thunder squad that had precious few games this season with an intact roster is starting to jell.
And Adams, the 7-foot rookie from New Zealand, suddenly has become a force. Thunder leadership hoped this team would keep improving, even this deep into the season, more than seven months after training camp started.
Leadership was right. And Adams is a major reason why. A guy who rarely played down the stretch of the regular season, or even in the first five games of the Memphis series, suddenly is indispensable against the Clippers.
Adams is being asked to check L.A. big men DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, after battling Memphis monsters Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Adams had nine rebounds combined in the first two games against the Clippers. Then nine rebounds in Game 3 alone. Adams had eight points in the Thunder’s critical Game 6 win at Memphis. He’s made nine of 13 shots since Scotty Brooks put Adams in the rotation. Made nine of 13 shots and a mortal enemy in Griffin, the Clipper phenom who is being rough-housed in this series.
“It’s really, really fun,” said Adams, who went from seldom playing (20 minutes total in the first five Memphis games) to averaging 20 minutes a game in the Clipper series.
“Just amazing feeling, really,” Adams said. “Constantly, always, focused, but you’re kind of enjoying, I am, the whole atmosphere of the playoffs. Just amazing, really, how exciting it is.”
Give Brooks credit. He’s forever labeled as too partial to veterans. Going with the Derek Fishers and Caron Butlers of the NBA, at the expense of the Reggie Jacksons and Jeremy Lambs. Yet with the season on the line, against two of the league’s most formidable front lines, Foreman Scotty has turned to Adams and shown complete trust.
Adams was on the court in Game 3 when the fourth quarter started, the Clippers up 90-86. Adams played 4:09, and when he departed, the Thunder had caught LA, 96-96.
“I look at Steven as a guy who’s going to continue to get better,” Brooks said. “He’s 20 years old. He understands he impacts the game by playing hard, he impacts the game by running the floor, he impacts the game by being big around the basket.”
Big around the basket. That’s a good way to put it. Adams is big and athletic. Takes up space, doesn’t get pushed around. And when the game moves into the air, Adams can join it.
“Steven is growing every single game,” Kevin Durant said Friday night. “He’s learning from one of the best defensive centers in the league in Perk (Kendrick Perkins) and Nick (Collison). He’s just following their lead and coming out and playing extremely hard. Tonight he was good for us. We’re going to need him to be better. He has another level he can go to, as well. We’re excited about it.”
Truth is, Adams is the Thunder’s center of the future. And that future could be as early as next season. It’s not crazy to think of Adams starting next season, with the aging Perk serving as the defensive backup.
“He’s playing aggressive,” Perkins said of Adams. “One thing we know about Steven, he gonna play physical. And he’s picking up the little things, so he’s been playing well.”
Adams still isn’t a premier defensive center. He gets beat on the pick’n roll much more than does Perkins. But Adams is indeed learning. And he knows when he’s fouled up. Adams on Friday night lamented all his missed defensive assignments.
“Pretty bad,” he said with a luscious Kiwi accent. “I screwed up quite a lot of coverages and helpsides. I should have been there.”
The Thunder can live with it. Adams brings energy and physicality and athletic ability. He can mix it up with most anyone in the NBA. Adams is one major reason the Thunder keeps improving. And might not be finished getting better.
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 newsok.com/berrytramel.