OKLAHOMA CITY — As the Oklahoma City Thunder have begun to find some footing after a rocky start, center Steven Adams has emerged as a go-to secondary option to support Russell Westbrook, averaging 22 points per game on nearly 80 percent shooting during the Thunder’s three-game winning streak.
“I think people have it really backwards,” Donovan said when asked why Adams has taken on such bigger offensive focus. “That’s the greatness, to me, of Carmelo Anthony. The reason why Steven Adams is doing what he’s doing is because of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.”
Adams finished with 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the Thunder’s 100-94 win over the Utah Jazz on Tuesday. In an impressive 17-point comeback capped by a 32-14 fourth quarter, Adams had a critical putback with 43 seconds left to put the Thunder up five. Meanwhile, Anthony struggled for large parts of the game, starting 2-of-13 from the floor before hitting four of his final six shots. George did the same, scoring just three points on 1-of-5 shooting in the first half and then 18 on 6-of-8 shooting in the second.
“I think a lot of people don’t see, they look at Carmelo and think, ‘Oh, he’s only taken seven or eight shots in two games,’ and they miss the big picture of what the guy has done for Steven Adams,” Donovan said. “It should be one point for Steven and one point for Carmelo. One point for Steve, one point for Paul. It’s a team. I think you all benefit from each other when you’re out there on the floor and playing the right way.”
In the two previous games, against the Timberwolves and Spurs, Anthony attempted a total of 17 shots, and for the first time in his career he scored in single digits in consecutive games. Anthony made a clear, intentional effort to make extra passes and resist low efficiency non-paint jumpers. George and Donovan spoke after Sunday’s game about Anthony’s sacrifice, with Anthony saying he’s willing to do whatever it is the team needs from him.
“For me, personally, it’s just about doing something different, seeing where the team really needs me on a night-to-night basis,” Anthony said Sunday. “And just be willing to do that and being willing to sacrifice, not every night having to score 20 or 30 points, and I’m good with that, it’s a good feeling as long as we’re winning.”
Down the stretch, though, the Thunder looked for Anthony as he scored eight of his 14 in the final five and a half minutes.
“We took our time and executed our play,” Anthony said. “We found something that was working, stayed with it and made them make the adjustment.”
Donovan also made sure to praise Adams for his improvement, saying he had the best summer he has seen since becoming coach three years ago. But the message was loud and clear: The Thunder play at their best when they take advantage of the space provided by their stars, rather than forcing the issue.
“Every game that goes by you get new information and I think the information for us is, if you look at us scoring 61 points [in the second half], it really comes down to shots,” Donovan said. “I have great respect for every guy on this team and their ability offensively, but there are times where you just have to pull back on some things. Even though I know, we know, you can make that at any particular time, sometimes it’s better to bypass that knowing you can get it back. Even later in the clock, it’s going to come back. And I think it’s just a matter of these guys seeing what our formula is of how we have to play.”
The Thunder played a sloppy, disjointed first half that featured only 39 points and 15 turnovers, but found a small spark in the third quarter from Westbrook. He scored seven straight points, then set up Adams for a layup, then had the favor returned from Adams on a backdoor cut for a dunk. Westbrook had 11 of his 34 in the third, plus four assists. He finished with his seventh triple-double of the season, 34-13-14 in 38 minutes.
“Russ had a win-at-all-cost attitude,” George said. “It just felt we weren’t going to lose that game the way he impacted that stretch.”
Westbrook keyed the comeback, but in the final five minutes, he geared down and focused on running the offense through Anthony taking advantage of mismatches in the mid-post, or George working off the ball. In clutch-time, Westbrook took only two shots, making one, and had four assists.
“It’s satisfying that we got a win, man,” Westbrook said when asked if he found satisfaction in the diversity of the offense in crunchtime. “That’s the most important part. That we collectively got a win and be able to do what we needed to do defensively and offensively.”
The Thunder improved to 11-12 and after struggling to win close games through the first month and a half, won their last three all by six points or fewer.
“When we’re committed to playing 48 minutes of moving the ball, generating good shots, however long it takes,” Donovan said, “that’s when I think we’re at our best.”