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Oklahoma City will need a second-half surge to reach the NBA postseason but Steven Adams' sophomore year already appears a success.
The Thunder went down to the red-hot Hawks in Atlanta yesterday, dropping to 22-21 on the season and falling further behind in the race for a Western Conference playoff berth.
They currently sit three-and-a-half games behind eighth seed Phoenix (26-18), a gap that is more than manageable in the final three months of the campaign. But, regardless of whether OKC complete a recovery after their injury-ravaged early season, Adams has proved a legitimate starting centre in the NBA.
The 21-year-old is one of only two players to start every game for the Thunder and the strengths in his game have seen coach Scott Brooks entrust Adams with big moments.
The big man scored nine points and added seven rebounds in 28 minutes of court time during the loss to Atlanta -- winners of 15 straight. That output was indicative of his season as a whole, with Adams averaging 7.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 24 minutes, and came two days after enjoying a career-best night against Washington
Coming up against one of the league's best frontcourts, Adams pulled down 20 boards to help the Thunder edge the Wizards in overtime on Thursday, surpassing the 15 he recorded against San Antonio on Christmas Day.
When quizzed about the key to his success, Adams responded in typically self-effacing fashion, though his numbers suggested there was a little more involved than mere luck.
"Just go after missed shots and hope I grabbed them," Adams said of his strategy. "My luck was pretty good. I just had some lucky bounces, really."
Brooks was more willing to provide credit to the Kiwi, elaborating on the factors that saw Adams seize the starting spot in the offseason.
"He's been working hard and improving day-by-day," Brooks said. "I like what he did. He was protecting the basket, rebounding and giving us opportunities to get out in transition."
In addition to his rebounding, Adams' ever-improving defence has seen him become an integral part of Oklahoma City's starting five, with Brooks having previously said that kind of contribution leaves less of a need for offence from the centre position.
As Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have shown since returning to full health, the All Star pair provide plenty of offence on their own. Hampered by foot and hand injuries, respectively, it took 17 games before Brooks could pencil both Durant and Westbrook into his lineup.
By that point the Thunder were languishing with a 5-12 record, desperately needing the assistance of two of the best players in basketball. Once that assistance arrived, OKC immediately rattled off seven straight wins, starting on the road to a 17-9 record with Durant and Westbrook involved.
That resurgence will need to continue if the Thunder are able to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009 but, if that misfortune were to eventuate, Adams will at least have some consolation.
- By Kris Shannon, NZME