BY DAVID THORPE
Steven Adams plays hard. He’s known for stellar defense, immense strength, and unbridled intensity. He’s definitional to the Grizzlies’ leading the league in second-chance points, and a big part of their rough-and-tumble identity. He’s also the most experienced postseason player on the Memphis roster. So, of course, he started Game 1 against the Timberwolves.
Then bad things happened as Adams tried to defend sweet-scoring big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
From the opening tip, Adams seemed hesitant about whether he should cut KAT off and possibly take a charge, or drive him below the block for a tough-angle finish. Here, he does neither, then flops.
Adams offers some help to a potential threat then completely forgets his most simple defensive assignment: Don’t let KAT make a straight-line drive for a dunk.
To say Adams struggled to contain KAT is an understatement. Adams’ problems with Towns are not new, but this was a disaster.
Once upon a time, the Showtime Lakers, winners of five total titles in nine Finals appearances, featured seven-footer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting in the low post. Whoever played the Lakers needed another seven-footer to guard him, and such was the game of basketball. Even after rule changes that allowed teams to send help before the center caught a pass inside, the game stayed mostly the same. Establish a post presence, feed it, then play around that.
Then Suns coach Mike D’Antoni moved agile-as-all-hell power forward Amar’e Stoudamire to center, and his Phoenix Suns set the league on fire. Stoudamire was far too quick to be contained by opposing big men. The Warriors then discovered gold with Draymond Green, who can defend the perimeter as well as any big ever and rumble with the league’s biggest, strongest players in the post. Draymond became the new prototype of a defensive big man.
In the span of a decade, teams dumped most of their tallest players. “It’s always been a copycat league,” says Steve Kerr. “When a team has success playing a certain style, teams try to emulate that.” Those Suns teams had incredible offenses, and Green’s Warriors were ring-winning teams.
And the particular way that it happened was embarrassing. Traditional, plodding big men simply couldn’t keep up with the Suns’ and Warriors’ frenetic offenses. Most big men weren’t fast enough to stop ball-handlers like Steve Nash or Stephen Curry as they came off screens, so they’d hang back in what’s known as drop coverage, often looking silly, floating all alone, trying to catch the meteoric movements of more nimble offensive players.
Even the league’s best rim protector, Rudy Gobert, has had trouble with the smaller lineups of the Dallas Mavericks, who platooned smaller, more nimble big-man shooters Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber at center. Powell was plus-24, Kleber plus-6 for the Mavs’ series win, with Kleber hitting 16-32 3s. Gobert finished the series a miserable minus-23; his similarly enormous backup, Hassan Whiteside, was minus-20.
As we recently wrote about in great detail, center has become the most difficult position in the league. Seven-footers who succeed nowadays tend to move like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Poor Steven Adams was living out the modern nightmare that is Bigs in Space (remember this?)—what it looks like when a huge, immobile man gets lost trying to guard the perimeter. Every coach fears what could happen with Bigs in Space, and Taylor Jenkins is no different.
The Timberwolves won Game 1, and Steven Adams has barely played since.
What choice did Jenkins have?
Consider the Boston Celtics, who have spent the second half of the season as one of Vegas’ favorites to win this year’s title.
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