“It feels good, man, kind of just to be back in that postseason mindset…looking forward to not planning vacations. Even though I would love to be with my family, I think they understand that this is very important.” — Carmelo Anthony, via Brett Dawson of The Daily Oklahoman
Nine years ago, the captain of the Denver Nuggets put up his most valiant playoff performance, as he and Chauncey Billups took on the ultimate challenge against the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Western Conference Finals would serve as a reminder that there are few scorers as gifted in NBA history as Melo, as his series averages of 27.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists don’t do justice to how he performed against the ultimate adversary in Kobe Bryant.
“I love him. He’s the closest one…the one I’m closest too from the (2008 USA Olympic) team. I look at him as a brother. I thought the world of him prior to my experience with him, and in playing with him, even more.” — Kobe, via ESPN broadcast.
Melo vs. Kobe was a slugfest, as Bryant would make note that going up against Anthony felt like he was “punching above his weight class” and Carmelo would show defensive chops that had yet to have been displayed in the critical moments. Even in series defeat, it felt like things could only get better for a then 24-year old Anthony. He absolutely deserved to be mentioned with the elite.
In the eight seasons following the series loss to the Lakers, Carmelo Anthony would not return to a conference final.
At the beginning of the 2017-18 NBA season, many sports handicappers had the Oklahoma City Thunder as a dark horse candidate to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy. The unified trio of Melo, Paul George and the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook represented a newly remixed powerhouse in the Western Conference.
What transpired over the course of the season was like taking a hallucinogenic drug then deciding to ride a rickety roller coaster. The highest of times have been awesome and euphoric, and the lowest of times have been terrifying and trippy. From an 8-12 start, to securing two wins each against the three best teams (Houston, Toronto and Golden State) in the NBA, the only constant has been the volatility of it all.
That includes the performance of Carmelo, who was sold on the opportunity to be the Olympic Melo we all fell in love with during his appearances repping the red, white and blue. Olympic Melo would be the stretch four that gave Oklahoma City the ultimate wild card, to be able to stretch the floor, play small, play big and ratchet up the offensive efficiency of a Thunder team known to get into their ruts.
And, for the most part, we have seen Olympic Melo in OKC…except he hasn’t been good at being Olympic Melo. The 45.1% career three-point shooter in the Olympics has been just a 35.8% three-point shooter for the Thunder. Melo will finish this season with the lowest true-shooting percentage (50.3%), lowest box plus/minus (-3.8) and value over replacement player (-1.1) in his career. (All stats are as of April 10, via Basketball Reference)
Except, there have been those flashes where Melo stops pressing and just reacts. Sometimes he reverts to Phone Booth Melo but reminds the world that the 17-foot assassin can be really good. His catch and shoot is still as quick as anyone’s in the league, and when he’s on, it feels like OKC is unbeatable.
Let his recent performance vs. Houston serve as an example of every Thunder fan’s wettest dream, where Phone Booth Melo, Olympic Melo and Classic Carmelo co-exist in one human wearing #7 in Oklahoma Blue. Oh, and there’s even a bit defense in there…who knew?
“I didn’t want to break his (Jerami Grant) rhythm. A lot of guys when they have it going like that, especially role player guys, bench guys, that gives them confidence. You believe in those guys.” Carmelo, on walking away from the scorer’s table to let Grant keep playing. (via Salt Lake Tribune)
There’s a harsh reality when it comes to Anthony and the ultimate glory the Thunder want to achieve. There will be times where Anthony simply is too much of a defensive liability and that players such as Grant will be the better play. The fact that Anthony is willing concede and check his ego at the scorer’s table is a sign of ultimate maturity.
Melo’s place in history is secure, with multiple All-Star appearances and Olympic Golds on his mantle, and the biggest icing on the cake he can now achieve is to be a role player on a championship team. It’s been noticed by his teammates and coaches, even if it’s not as appreciated by the fans who still aspire for him to average 25 a game at a time where that would be impossible.
The conversation is changed, let’s yap about that…
I don’t run rap no more, I run the map…
— Jay Z — “What We Talkin’ About” on The Blueprint 3
For Melo, this is all about the bigger picture. and that picture will have to come into focus when the playoffs begin.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”