PORTLAND, Ore. — When TNT’s cameras caught Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan apparently saying “can’t play Kanter” about then-Thunder center Enes Kanter during Game 1 of the Thunder’s 2017 first-round series loss to the Houston Rockets, it captured popular sentiment about Kanter’s defensive limitations in the playoffs.
In another Game 1 on Sunday, playing for the Portland Trail Blazers against Oklahoma City, Kanter replaced that memory with a more positive playoff moment. His 20 points and game-high 18 rebounds, the latter a postseason career high, were critical to Portland’s 104-99 win over the Thunder to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series and snap a 10-game Blazers playoff losing streak that dated to 2016.
“I’m not considered a great defender (either),” Portland All-Star Damian Lillard said, “but I think when the effort is there, when your focus is there and you care enough — the desire is there — you can do something for the team. I think that’s shown since (Kanter) has been on our team, and it showed tonight.”
Donovan explained after the infamous clip that he was talking about playing Kanter in certain defensive coverages, not putting him on the floor, and Kanter said Sunday that he believed Donovan’s explanation. Nonetheless, Kanter played just 29 minutes off the bench in the final four games of that series — his last for the Thunder before being traded to the New York Knicks as part of the 2017 trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City.
With New York, Kanter’s ability to stay on the court in the playoffs was immaterial. But the Knicks waived Kanter after the trade deadline, and he signed with the Blazers for the stretch run, a move he told Portland GM Neil Olshey after Game 1 was a good decision.
“I was on the worst team in the league, and I wasn’t even playing because they thought I was too old to play,” Kanter said. “The situation and all the drama, it was so frustrating because all I wanted to do was go out there and just win. A couple of days ago, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Man, I’m blessed to be here with an amazing organization and amazing teammates that trust in me.’ It definitely feels amazing, and it’s definitely a blessing.”
Originally, Kanter was signed to provide frontcourt depth in Portland. His role changed on March 25, when center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a compound fracture of his left leg that ended his season, thrusting Kanter into the starting lineup and a key role in this series against his former team.
The Blazers went 6-2 with Kanter starting at center the rest of the regular season, largely against lottery-bound teams. Sunday’s game was the toughest test of Kanter’s defense, and he more than held his own. Portland was a game-high plus-15 in his 34 minutes, and he blocked a pair of shots. Oklahoma City scored just .81 points per chance in 27 pick-and-rolls involving Kanter, according to Second Spectrum tracking, as compared to the Thunder’s average of .91 points per chance during the regular season.
“I think it’s unfortunate, a lot of times you get a reputation and that reputation kind of sticks with you, whether you deserve it or not,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I think Enes has been really good for us defensively. He gives great effort.”
“He works. That’s the biggest thing,” Portland guard CJ McCollum said. “He puts the effort forward, he communicates, he moved his feet tonight. Obviously, Russ (Westbrook) coming downhill, PG (Paul George) coming downhill, (Dennis) Schroder coming downhill, those are tough covers for any big man in the league, and I thought he held his ground well.
“He held his ground against Steven Adams and showed his versatility. I think he’s done a good job for us, and obviously he’s been a key acquisition for us with Nurk going down. We need him producing at a high level.”
For Kanter, the chemistry and trust he has built with his new teammates were key to his success defensively.
“I think defense is all about communication for us,” he said. “I think we did a very good job communicating on the pick-and-rolls and trusting each other. I know every time I got beat or somebody else got beat, my teammates have got my back, and I’ve got their back.”
As a result, on Sunday, the Blazers not only could play Kanter but also needed him on the court to beat the Thunder.