It seems like only yesterday that Thunder coach Billy Donovan was caught on camera mouthing the words “can’t play Kanter” after watching James Harden once again put his lead-footed big man in the torture chamber out on the perimeter during a playoff game against the Rockets.
It was a searing indictment on Enes Kanter‘s postseason efficacy, as well as his overall viability as a player. It wasn’t long after that OKC jettisoned him to the Knicks, where he toiled away in obscurity until the Blazers picked him out of the bargain bin in February to back up the now-injured Jusuf Nurkic.
So on Sunday, it must have felt like sweet redemption – if not revenge – for the oft-maligned Kanter, who submitted perhaps his best and most important performance as a pro when he put up 20 points and 18 rebounds in the Blazers’ 104-99 win in Game 1 against his former team, including this running finger-roll off the glass with his left hand in the closing moments to help seal the victory.
As good as Kanter was, he can’t take all the credit. Portland needed 30 points from Damian Lillard, including some audacious three-point shooting in the clutch, plus an ice-cold shooting night from Paul George (8-of-24 overall, including 4-of-15 from downtown), resulting in a narrow margin of victory that is cause for some concern.
Yet Kanter’s stellar play, on both sides of the floor, is reason for cautious optimism. After Nurkic went down with a horrific leg injury, most basketball pundits were ready to write off the Blazers, largely because of the lack of confidence in Kanter’s ability to step into that role on a full-time basis.
In Game 1 at least, Kanter more than compensated for his deficiencies on defense with effort and hustle plays, not to mention his work on the glass as the pulled down seven offensive boards in the game and put in a good faith effort in the post against Steven Adams.
After the game, Kanter reflected on his NBA journey and the course of events that led him to this day and seemed genuinely grateful for the opportunity he’s been given Portland after nearly finding himself without a team earlier this year.
If Kanter can somehow keep this up, the Blazers are in a much better position than anyone gave them credit for going into this series. The conventional wisdom on Kanter has always been that his liabilities on defense aren’t worth what he gives you on the other end of the floor. Just ask Billy Donovan. But depending on how this opening-round match-up plays out, the Thunder coach might have a very different answer when all is said and done.
The Blazers have already exorcised some serious demons by avoiding a first-round sweep for the first time in two years and snapping a 10-game postseason losing streak. They’ll try to hang on to homecourt advantage when Game 2 tips off back at the Moda Center on Tuesday night, and will hope Kanter can repeat his Game 1 effort.