A big question was left open after the Portland Trail Blazers lost at the last second to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of their 2021 NBA Playoffs series. The night turned around a single rebound. Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter was conspicuous by his absence as Portland lost that rebounding battle, and right afterwards, the game. Why wasn’t Kanter in for the fateful play? That question, along with one about Carmelo Anthony’s minutes, comprises our Blazer’s Edge Mailbag today.
WHY WASN’T ENES KANTER IN [ed. I’m going to lower case the rest...you get the idea] for the rebound that won the game for Denver last night? That’s such a basic error that I don’t know how someone even coaches who makes it. STUPID STUPID STUPID! STUPID. [ed. Ok, I couldn’t resist the ending caps. Especially with the extra “stupid”.]
Yeah, I agree on the technical point, though I wouldn’t put as much spicy mustard on the burrito as you did there. The clock was stopped with 3.2 seconds left. The Blazers trailed 118-115 and had intentionally fouled for possession. They had no timeouts remaining. Their only hope was that Monte Morris would miss both free throws. Then they’d grab the rebound, streak down the court, and loft the game-tying three. It wasn’t entirely implausible. The hardest part was getting Morris to miss the foul shots. Miraculously, he did. But Portland didn’t follow up on their end. Fielding nobody taller than 6’7, they watched Nikola Jokic tippety-tap the rebound, then put it into the bucket. It was a frustrating way to lose, especially since one imagines that last-second three soaring through the twine and Portland emerging victorious.
(In reality, even had it gone in, the Blazers would have faced a 5:00 overtime period without Jusuf Nurkic, who had fouled out earlier in the fourth. Maybe Blazers fans should imagine Damian Lillard getting fouled on the halfcourt heave, then teaching Morris how to shoot a clutch free throw with the four-point play.)
Not subbing in Human Rebounding Machine Enes Kanter in that situation looks like a major oversight. Honestly, it was. He was the only player the Blazers had left, outside of never-used Harry Giles III, with any kind of height. Gaining possession of the ball is a necessary prerequisite to shooting it. The play worked out as poorly as possible.
The only windows into the situation are shaded. We’d need to know all the things that Terry Stotts and his coaching staff were thinking—or forgetting to think about—in that moment. We don’t, but here are a couple other factors.
Kanter has not been his usual “1 rebound every 2 minutes” self in this series. He had only 3 rebounds in 15 minutes in Game 1, 4 in 17 minutes in Game 2. He had played but 6 minutes in Game 3, garnering just one board in the process. But he still has a track record of board-work. Other than Robert Covington, no player available to the Blazers in that moment had done better in the game, so that excuse is a little thin.
Kanter is not a three-point shooter and would have been of modest utility on the ensuing attempt to tie, but that isn’t a solid reason either. By the time he got the rebound out of his hands, the clock would have read just over 2 seconds. There’s no way he could get himself down the floor to the three-point arc in that span, let alone set up for a shot. He never would have been part of the play. Nor, frankly, would any player who rebounded it. I supposed there’s a dream vision of Carmelo Anthony snagging the ball then dribbling into a three, but it’s hard to see Denver allowing that. The play is rebound, pivot, find a guard, and hope they make the shot. Kanter could have fulfilled the first 3⁄4 of that to-do list.
If I had to guess, I suspect a Terry Stotts tendency played into the decision as much as any technical reason. Stotts does make situational substitutions, but as far as I’ve observed, he doesn’t tend to do so with players who are having bad games, no matter what their skill set. He likes to ride the hot hands, players who are performing well. Kanter was not. He has not been throughout the series, and he really wasn’t on Thursday night.
There might be a cultural/coaching style thing going on here. If you play well, you’re going to be on the court regardless of position. If you don’t, we’re not going to pull someone who is. I’m not sure if that reasoning would apply consciously in this situation, but that’s the habit in Portland. This is certainly why Kanter wasn’t subbed in when Nurkic fouled out with 5:17 remaining in Game 3. It may have held true to the end.
On the other hand, Stotts may have just not looked towards the bench, or he may have decided against Kanter for his own reasons. As it turned out, it wasn’t the right call. That’s why coaches get paid the big bucks to make those decisions, and why they receive plenty of ALL-CAPS SCRUTINY when it doesn’t work out.
Why is it that Coach Stotts subs Melo in and out like a robot. Sub him in around the 4min mark of the 1st quarter sub out 2nd quarter 6 or 7 min mark. Basically same way in 2nd half. Shouldn’t coach see how the game flow is, is Melo hot if so stay with him etc.
There are plenty of reasons for this. We should point out that it’s not an iron-clad rule, though. Carmelo Anthony stayed in the game until the end in Game 3 when he was running hot (and after Jusuf Nurkic fouled out). That’s not the first time that’s happened either. See the note above about Stotts tending to favor players who are playing well versus others, regardless of matchups.
But Anthony is a special case, even among Blazers. Age and stamina are going to affect his playing time. Skill set is as well.
Portland needs scoring off the bench. If Anthony is providing it, that’s a huge advantage. He’s the only player on the team outside of Lillard and McCollum who can draw eyes and defenses by his very presence. He may not look great when opponents throw double-teams at him, knowing he’s going to shoot, but at least they’re throwing them! His potential for scoring is valuable to the Blazers, in some cases even if the shots aren’t actually falling.
It can go both ways, though. Anthony’s defense sometimes precludes him spending extra time on the floor even if he’s scoring just fine. When the starters are ready to come back in, they can provide all of his scoring punch and probably defend better, so he sits.
We should not forget the fact that Carmelo is NBA royalty as well. As good as Damian Lillard is, ‘Melo was even better in his heyday. At one point he might have been the second-best player in the league, a superstar around whom major franchises built. That’s not a reason for playing him, but it does make ignoring him problematic. Benching ‘Melo will not go unnoticed in the media or the locker room. If you’re going to do it, there have to be reasons.
Anthony hasn’t provided those reasons. He’s played well enough, often enough, in the ways the Blazers want. He’s even won a couple games for them. There’s no real justification for giving him fewer minutes than he’s earning on this roster. Most nights, there’s not a ton for giving him more, either.
All these factors play into the phenomenon you’re noticing. Anthony tends to have regular shifts. We should point out that this isn’t unique. Five other players do too: the starters. The coaching staff is simply treating Anthony more like a starter than like a bench player who’s having to earn his floor time situationally. Part of that is talent, part is respect, and part of it is lack of other players to fulfill the specific role that Anthony does.
Regular minutes for ‘Melo isn’t a bad thing, at least not for this year’s squad. It makes him feel better, the players around him feel better, and removes a huge potential headache for the coaching staff. If the roster looks different next season, that story will change. For now, it’s no harm (at least none that wouldn’t have happened anyway), and thus no real foul.
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