Enes Kanter is coming up big for the Blazers against Denver star Nikola Jokic
The Blazers led the Nuggets 86-73 in the fourth quarter Wednesday night when Denver center Nikola Jokic flipped up a hook shot.
The ball bounced off the rim, and Denver’s Will Barton was there for the putback. But that shot fell off, too. Never fear. The Nuggets’ Torrey Craig tipped the miss. He missed, too. So Craig tipped again. And again he missed.
Finally, Barton got the rebound and was fouled going back up for Denver’s fifth shot of the possession.
Portland coach Terry Stotts had seen enough. He called for Enes Kanter to get back in the game. The irony was rich. Can’t Play Without Kanter.
What a postseason for everyone’s favorite former Thunder. Stigmatized by Billy Donovan’s unfortunate comment in the 2017 playoffs against Houston – “can’t play Kanter” – Kanter has revived his career. He’s won over the Blazer fans the way he won us over here in Oklahoma, and he’s insured a nice new contract somewhere this summer, when it looked like his career was struggling.
The Blazers beat the Nuggets 97-90 in Game 2, and Kanter played Jokic to a standstill. Jokic is one of the NBA’s best players; if Denver doesn’t get the edge in the paint, it will struggle to win.
Kanter and Jokic shared the court for 31 minutes Wednesday night. During that time, Jokic made four of 12 shots and scored eight points, though he did have seven assists. Jokic had a monster Game 1 – 37 points, nine rebounds – but so did Kanter, who had 26 points, seven rebounds and only three missed shots. Kanter is averaging 20.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in the two games, on 67 percent shooting.
Kanter, signed by Portland in March after the Knickerbockers cut him, has ably filled in for injured Blazer center Jusuf Nurkic. Kanter was pivotal in the Blazers’ five-game defeat of the Thunder, now he’s doing the same in the Denver series, despite a shoulder separation suffered against OKC.
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What a lesson for us all. The Blazers have focused on what Kanter can do, rather than what he can’t.
Donovan wasn’t wrong two Aprils ago, when James Harden and the Rockets torched the Thunder on the pick-and-roll, and cameras caught Donovan saying “can’t play Kanter.” Donovan COULDN’T play Kanter; not in that series.
Kanter’s feet don’t move quickly enough to defend the pick-and-roll at a high level. Denver – and many NBA teams – don’t run the pick-and-roll the way Houston does with Harden. Not even Russell Westbrook and the Thunder took full advantage of Kanter in the first round.
Harden and the Rockets are a special case. Convention doesn’t work against Houston, as you still can see now, when Golden State has scrapped its usual starting lineup and gone without a center in the Western Conference semifinals.
Not playing Kanter against Houston isn’t the same as not playing Kanter against anyone. Heck, Donovan himself played Kanter 22.6 minutes a game the previous year in those memorable West semifinals against San Antonio.
And it’s not like the Thunder got rid of Kanter at first opportunity. He was traded for Carmelo Anthony, back when getting Carmelo seemed like a great idea.
So Kanter always has been a valuable player. He scores and rebounds with above-average frequency. Against Denver, Kanter helps even defensively, because he can body up against Jokic, who is no athletic marvel but is uncommonly skilled for a big man. Through his first nine playoff games, Jokic has averaged 23.9 points, 12.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists. The only other player in NBA history with at least 20/10/4 in his first nine playoff games was Larry Bird.
Yet Kanter is holding his own. And in turbulent times.
Kanter’s problems with his native Turkey are well-documented. He’s been critical of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a supporter of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is considered an enemy of Erdogan. An arrest warrant has been issued for Kanter in Turkey.
Nugget fans heckled Kanter on Game 2, mocking his troubled status with his homeland.
Kanter used Twitter to respond: “I wish I could go back to Turkey to see family. But I chose to support Democracy, Freedom and Human rights. I am grateful for most Americans supporting that right. Nuggets, take control of your fans. This is hurtful. Be grateful for the Democracy and Freedom we have here.”
Who could argue with that? Who could do anything but love the guy who plays hard during the game but smiles after the game, win or lose? Who could do anything but love the guy who brings people together in this age when we’re so divided? Who could do anything but love the guy who is showing us that you indeed can play Kanter?
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.