One of the hallmarks of surprise wins in the NBA is when the last player a team expects comes out of the woodwork with a sudden burst of talent that they’ve never displayed before and causes all sorts of pandemonium with their presence. For the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, the unexpected spoiler was Enes Kanter. His performance of 20 points, 18 rebounds and 2 blocks put the Thunder in quite a daze in Game 1 despite the fact that Kanter had already made it clear before the season had started that the playoffs are when he gets most, uhh, excited.
To clarify any potential concerns: yes, the Thunder losing to the Blazers was a surprise loss despite the fact that Portland was four games better than Oklahoma City. The Blazers have essentially been Toronto West with their consistent postseason disappointment and would be looking at four straight years of first-round exits if the bodies of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin didn’t give out in 2017. Sure, the Thunder didn’t have the most convincing end to the season but the Russell Westbrook-Paul George combo was thought to be better than the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum one-two punch, and Steven Adams was supposed to eat Kanter alive down low. (The key word there being “was”).
Instead, the Thunder allowed Kanter to look like the dangerous two-way star that no one in their right mind would accuse him of being.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. That is in fact Enes “go practice defense” Kanter getting a block against Russell Westbrook and using his strength on offense to snatch a rebound for a put-back layup. As jaw-dropping as those sequences are, they were ultimately the icing on the cake of his overall impressive performance. The plays that really helped him look like a world-beater were when he was grabbing offensive rebounds for his team. On nearly ever possession, even on plays where offensive boards weren’t possible, if he wasn’t in perfect position to potentially get the ball, he was at least in a better position than Adams—the center he used to be a back up for—was. Take this play here: a reverse layup from Damian Lillard where there wasn’t even a rebounding opportunity because the guard scored.
Kanter is able to time his dash to the basket with the second Adams’s gaze moves towards off of him and onto Lillard. The move results in great positioning in the paint to recover the ball in case Lillard missed. But, because the Blazers guard actually made the shot, Kanter can at least enjoy the fact that he made Adams look slow and sluggish—something that happened on most of these kinds of possessions.
In Kanter’s final act of the evening, he chose to make poor ol’ Adams his victim again. With 17 seconds left, the Blazers had to dump the inbounds pass off to him because the designed play had been botched. Kanter tried to reset things and get in position to pass out to a capable guard who could make a clutch shot. When no safe pass presented itself, the Portland big man did what any irrationally confident individual would do in his position and went for the bucket himself. You can almost hear the “nonononononononoYES!” cheers in the background as the play develops.
For Kanter, this win and performance likely feels all the more sweeter because of where he was in his career just months ago. Back then, the Knicks were actively trying to get rid of him because he was too old and wasn’t talented enough to make the rotation. All he wanted to do was return to the court to not just play again, but also win. Up until a few hours ago the follow up sentence to that would be something like Portland certainly helped Kanter in that regard. However, today things are flipped because it was Kanter who helped put the Blazers in a winning situation.