STEVEN ADAMS LOVES the sauna.
Actually, Steven Adams loves the sow-nah, which is how he makes sure to pronounce it, overemphasizing his Kiwi accent.
The sow-nah has some mythical power in Adams' mind, the ability to tweak body chemistry, release hormones and increase strength. It's performance-enhancing science, and Adams loves science.
"The research behind it, mate, you can bloody ask one of those guys who's got a degree," Adams says. "Bloody science, whatever mate. I'm a big fan of science, but whoever searched that up, cool man, because I'm a fan of the sauna."
Adams says it's just relaxing and feels nice -- good for the hair and the skin. But it also might be the secret source of his seemingly superhuman strength.
"He says it's good for testosterone levels, for testosterone growth or something," former teammate Taj Gibson says.
There's no "NBA's Strongest Man" contest where players lift Jumbotrons or heave backboards onto the upper concourse, but among peers and people around the league, Adams is widely considered the NBA's strongman, a walking concrete wall of power and physicality.
"That guy is the strongest, most physical guy in the league," says Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who coached Adams for two seasons in OKC.
Says teammate Jerami Grant: "He is for sure, definitely the strongest guy in the NBA."
In a league trending toward speed, spacing, shooting and slashing, Adams is the counterpoint. Old school. A "throwback," as San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich calls him.
Adams is a bruising, physical relic of the past, a back-to-the-basket brute who will grind possessions in the post and overpower you to get there.
"He's from Krypton or something."
THERE'S AN UNMISTAKABLE rumble before games in Oklahoma City, and it can be heard in the tunnels of Chesapeake Energy Arena some 90 minutes before tipoff.
It's sounds like a rhinoceros galloping on concrete, but it's Adams running down the hall for his pregame warm-up. Chin tucked into his chest, shoulders slightly hunched, eyes empty and staring forward, Adams is stomping his size-19 feet against the tile floor as if he's trying rattle a picture frame off the wall.
You can always hear Adams coming, which is a good thing, because sometimes those sharp turns in the bowels of an arena could set up some poor soul to take an unfortunate charge. Despite his taste for physicality, charges are something Adams avoids giving. He says he can only remember being called for one in his career, and hasn't forgotten the details.
"It was Markieff Morris," he says. "I remember who it was. He wasn't talking s---, but it was really intense defense so I went to drop-step into him and he flopped and got a charge and I was like, 'This sucks,' and it made me not want to do a drop-step anymore. 'OK, now I've gotta go around them, not through them.'"
A 7-footer, and weighing around 270 pounds, Adams is the NBA's version of "The Mountain," Gregor Clegane, from "Game of Thrones." Adams' hands are bear claws that make a basketball look like a cantaloupe when he holds it. His shoulders are broad like a battleship and his bones are seemingly made of adamantium.
Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein -- 7-foot, 240-pound Willie Cauley-Stein -- learned in November what other big men around the league have known for years: Adams is the NBA's immovable object.
"He is strong. He is strong," Gibson says. "He's also highly intelligent, he's extremely physical, he loves the physicality of the game, he loves setting screens. He's just a beast down there, man."
According to NBA.com/stats, Adams averages 5.6 post-ups per game, 12th most in the league. On them, he's shooting 54.9 percent, the best mark in the league of any player averaging more than two post-up shot attempts a game. Adams is second in the league in paint touches per game (behind only Houston's Clint Capela) at 13.2 and is shooting better than 50 percent on hook shots this season (on 87 attempts).
Adams gets excited talking about the intricacies of the low block, how it shifts defenses and compromises help rotations just by the ball moving there. He loves the strategy of basketball, obsessively studying film to locate the tiniest detail or tactical advantage. He'll linger on the practice court after shootarounds talking with Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant, one of the best developers of bigs in the NBA, and someone Adams credits for much of his success.
It's all about angles and opportunity, and taking advantage of a lost art in the NBA.
"One of the reasons I've found a little bit of success down low is no one plays low-post defense anymore," Adams says. "It's so much easier in the post. It's so tough to score against [Marcin] Gortat, Nene [Hilario], the older guys. They've played it so many times, over and over again. They have their own little tricks, they know the balance, they know what to force you to.
"Back in the day, mate, you take one dribble -- I couldn't even back down [point guard] Derek Fisher. You know, it was just that old school, like, 'Boom! You ain't moving' type of thing."
Adams draws a distinction in opposing strong players in the current NBA. There are "strong" players and there are "heavy" players; Nene is a strong, Marc Gasol is heavy (but not in a bad way). For Adams, strength comes down to a simple principle: balance.
"Most of the guys would smoke me in the weight room," he says. "Like Serge [Ibaka], Serge in the weight room, mate, he was like getting it in every day, just killing it. But on the court I could just move him around."
Does Adams even lift, bro? No doubt, but the focus of his training is strengthening his base and core, what he calls "awareness of the body." He wants to root himself to the hardwood, using his trunk legs as an impenetrable base.
"You can be as strong as you bloody want, mate," he says, "but if you're on one leg, it goes down the drain."
THE THUNDER WERE down six on the road against the Denver Nuggets midway through the fourth quarter. It was a big game -- big for December at least -- with the Thunder trying to gain ground on their division rival. Points were getting hard to come by, possessions turning into a 24-second grind and the physicality cranking up. Russell Westbrook drove downhill and found Adams on a slip. Springy shot-blocker Mason Plumlee rotated back to Adams and prepared to launch.
Adams pumped the ball, sending Plumlee into the thin Denver air with no shot to block. Plumlee toppled over Adams' shoulders and 19,000 people in the arena gasped and braced for the worst. But instead of using that Herculean strength to power through the 240-pound Plumlee for an and-1, Adams dropped the ball and grabbed his counterpart, preventing a nasty fall.
It was a common foul, and instead of possibly three points to cut it to one possession, it was side out-of-bounds for OKC.
Steven Adams saved Mason Plumlee from a bad fall instead of going for the layup 👏 pic.twitter.com/rTE5ojbw23— ESPN (@espn) December 15, 2018
"Obviously we're trying to compete and stuff, but the worst thing is to see some dude playing hard for their team to bloody get injured," Adams says. "Because it's a career thing also. The worst in the world is he's just done. Falls on his neck or something. And then it's just like, 'F---.' Honestly he did most of the work."
People around the league took notice, with videos titled things like, "Steven Adams saves Mason Plumlee's life!" circulating. They played on, and the Nuggets won.
But for all his likability, Adams carries a reputation. In a Los Angeles Times poll in 2016, it was Adams who was anonymously voted by coaches, assistants and players the second-dirtiest player in the league (Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova was No. 1).
Adams shrugs it off and admits that while he's an intentional irritant -- he likes to rub his sweaty face on opponents at the free throw line -- there's a lot less talk of Adams' antics these days.
"I have nothing but respect for him," says Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who played two games in three days against Adams last week. "We go at it; we keep it clean. There's never any funny business."
It doesn't mean Adams is easing up. There's still the same raw physicality and power. It's a little more calculated now, a little more precise, a little less intentional.
"He will knock your block off and then ask you if you're OK," Gibson says. "Until you get him pissed off. I've seen him pissed off a lot of times."
Adams is athletic, with artful footwork, baby-soft hands and a certain finesse that can sometimes be a little jarring -- he has even flashed a Eurostep this season. One of his go-to baseline moves is a spin off the defender's forearm and shoulder that is so quick it catches them flat-footed.
It's the two-edged sword of Adams' strength; opposing defenders are loading up, bracing for the blunt force and then he hits them with the speed move. But there's one thing Adams' power doesn't benefit.
"It doesn't help with flopping," he says. "So many times I'll try and steal one and [the refs] are like, 'Shut up, get up, get up.' I am like, 'Dang it, are you sure?'"
It's hard to get a call sometimes when you have a reputation. His ability to take a punch or an elbow and not flinch is somewhat legendary, like in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference first round.
Then-Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph punched Adams in the face and was suspended for Game 7, but no one knew about the hit because Adams never reacted to it. That is, until his jaw was so sore he couldn't chew his waffles the next morning.
"Oh yeah, I was pissed," Adams says with a laugh. "Because I love food."
"Back in the day, mate, you take one dribble -- I couldn't even back down Derek Fisher. You know, it was just that old school, like, 'Boom! You ain't moving' type of thing." Steven Adams
The oblivious toughness, the simple pragmatism, the self-deprecating humor, Adams has endeared him to fans around the league. He lives by the creed of team-first loyalty and commitment, a tenant of the culture of New Zealand and more specifically, the All Blacks, the national rugby team.
Adams is unassuming and authentically humble. For a time, teammates weren't sure Adams knew how good he was. Shooting inherently feels selfish, and Adams is anything but. Passing is teamwork.
"I've always just wanted to bloody pass the ball," Adams says. "It's why I get f---ing pissed at people. It's just like, 'Bro! Just f---ing cut!' It's a bit lazy and selfish, but I could use energy and back this guy down and take a contested hook, or you could do the work and we could get a layup. I'll drop one to you and we'll get a layup.
"Layups are good. Layups are f---ing awesome in my book, mate. Huge fan of layups."
But if it's about whatever is best for the team, Adams' scoring is a big part of that and there is clear intent to keep him aggressive, with Westbrook seeing it as his responsibility to make sure of it.
"I think he knows [how good he is], but I don't think he really cares," Westbrook says. "He just wants to win and that's all that matters to him. I make it my job, my priority to make sure he gets the ball and gets enough shots. Because when he plays well, we win."
IT WAS MARCH of last season against the Miami Heat, and Adams caught the ball at the top of the key in rhythm and appeared to consider, if only briefly, taking a 3. The home crowd rumbled with anticipation, begging for him to let it fly.
Adams laughed after the game about hearing the fans urge him to launch, but then nodded at Westbrook's locker.
"I would get destroyed. Old mate over there," Adams said after the game, "he'd chew me out."
Adams is a favorite target of Westbrook's with the two running one of the most fluid two-man games in the league. Westbrook slots pocket passes through minuscule openings and Adams snags them with his giant hands. Adams technically is an excellent midrange shooter, but they're really just one-handed push-shots from 8 to 10 feet out. Adams' floater is an offensive weapon because as opposing defenses brace for impact, he stops and gently places a teardrop over them.
"Yeah, if he wants," Westbrook says of Adams capability of taking 3s during games. "But that's not the strong part of his game. He's the most physical guy in the league, powerful, so why shoot the 3?"
Adams has never tried a 3 in a game -- he's 0-for-6 officially, all buzzer-beating launches -- and there's a good chance he never will. Spacing is the rage in modern basketball, but while the NBA tries to play farther from the basket, Adams wants to get as close to it as he can.
"You don't have to shoot bloody 3s," he says. "Points per possession -- I get it. I get it. But it's not a machine. You can't just throw throw s--- in there and the product at the end should be, 'This, according to our calculation.' That's not how it works."
It used to be an inside joke after Thunder practices for Adams to try a bunch of corner 3s, missing eight or nine in a row before finally make one and yelling out, "First try!" Now, he'll camp out in the corner and hit eight or nine in a row.
"He will knock your block off and then ask you if you're OK. Until you get him pissed off. I've seen him pissed off a lot of times." Taj Gibson, on former teammate Steven Adams
Taking 3s is part of his standard pregame routine as he goes around the horn, hitting one from each wing and corner, and the top of the key.
"There's other players out there that I'm pretty sure I could beat them in a 3-point contest, other bigs. But they'll shoot one in a game," Adams says. "Hey, their coach allows it, that's cool. I don't give a s---. Do whatever you gotta do.
"But for our system and stuff, it's not like I'm picking and popping. Even though there's an opportunity there, it's more about understanding the value of that possession. Because the last thing I want is to shoot a 3 just to shoot a 3."
Shooting is currency in the modern NBA, but Adams is a retro revolution of sorts, pushing back against copycat standards. He's contemporary old school, both selfless and skilled, modest and monstrous. He's proving the "traditional" big isn't antiquated; it's a rare commodity when it comes in a unique package like Adams.
It's about playing to your strengths, and Adams knows his.
"It's whatever the team bloody wants, mate."