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.