His hoodie wrapped tightly over his head and his practice jersey draped over his back like a cape, Carmelo Anthony walked into the Oklahoma City Thunder media room two days after missing three 3-pointers in the final four minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers — one coming at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
He was asked a question about being nominated as a finalist for the J. Walter Kennedy award for community service, and another about helping to bus 4,500 Baltimore students to the March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to shift back to those misses.
“Oh, we went from the youth to the shots?” Anthony said with a grin. “Oh s—. All right. Yeah, I don’t worry about that stuff, man, as far as missing or making shots. I’ve made a lot of shots in my career, and I’ve missed a lot of shots in my career.
“Those same shots, I’ll probably make tomorrow, and we won’t even be talking about that.”
“Tomorrow” was Thursday in San Antonio, where he went 3-of-3 from deep in a 103-99 loss to the Spurs. The following night, against the Denver Nuggets, Anthony was shooting well again, but with two minutes left while waiting to check in at the scorer’s table as the Thunder held a six-point lead, he did what many thought Billy Donovan should’ve done in the game against Portland — Melo benched himself.
With Jerami Grant playing well and the Thunder winning, Anthony waved at the court and walked back to the sideline. The Nuggets managed to force overtime — with Anthony watching as Russell Westbrook misfired on a game-winning 3 at the end of regulation — and the Thunder lost in the extra frame as Anthony played all five minutes, hitting a 3.
It was a strange situation, considering Donovan matter-of-factly stated he was going to play Anthony in those crunch-time spots following the late miscues against Portland: He’s a veteran, he’s made those shots his whole career. Donovan trusts him.
Donovan walked that back a bit at practice the next day, and then five nights later against Denver, Anthony didn’t play a second in the fourth quarter.
Donovan credited Anthony’s selflessness for trusting in his teammates, but the volume was already rising on a conversation destined to be sparked as games become more important: What do the Thunder do about Melo?
He knew something had to change, and he knew it needed to be him.
After falling to the New York Knicks on Dec. 16 in his return to Madison Square Garden, Anthony addressed the team, talking roles and acceptance following a 15-point loss to his former team. He wanted to assure them, namely the Thunder’s two other stars, that he was OK with this.
From the moment the trade was made, the Thunder envisioned Anthony as a stretch option to complement Westbrook and Paul George, but with egos and pride at play, that determination needed to come organically, and from within.
A few questions into his media day availability, fresh off a physical hours earlier that had him officially joining the Thunder, Anthony was casually asked about how he’d feel about coming off the bench.
“Who, me?” Anthony said with a chuckle and the perfect amount of sarcasm while George was walking by the room.
“Hey P,” Anthony said. “They say I gotta come off the bench!”
Earlier in the season, the three stars implored each other on “you be you,” the idea that everybody was cool, the chemistry was great and no one was going to be stepping on toes.
None of it worked. Westbrook was noticeably uncomfortable, George couldn’t find a rhythm and Anthony’s jab-stepping isos were the record scratches on a star-studded offense.
Before Anthony’s change, the Thunder were 25th leaguewide in offensive efficiency. Since then, they’re sixth. It’s what unlocked the Thunder from their awkward, “your turn, his turn, my turn” stalemate.
As tensions eased, the offense flowed, with Westbrook re-establishing himself as the driving force, George playing off him, Steven Adams emerging and Anthony accepting what was left over.
He said in January the game was fun again. In Los Angeles after a game against the Clippers, one reporter asked him about the mythological creature known as Olympic Melo, the catch-and-shoot savant who pulverized international opponents for Team USA — the player Anthony was going to be for OKC.
“That’s my role. You hit it right on the nose,” he said. “Make the game easier for myself, make the game easier for Paul, make the game easier for Russ. …
“I think it was something I had to accept. I’ve accepted that role on this team. I think that’s the role that we need from me in order for us to be successful.”
It took a minute, but Anthony accepted it. He is Olympic Melo. He just hasn’t been all that great at it.
It has basically resulted in career lows across the board for Anthony. He expected it, and in some ways is relieved by it. He didn’t make the All-Star Game for the first time in seven seasons, but the burden of carrying a team on a nightly basis is gone.
The shots haven’t fallen the way he thought they would, with him saying early on he wasn’t used to taking them being that open, to now just struggling with taking advantage of the inconsistent number of looks he gets any given night.
Some of the issues have been that his teammates just haven’t found him enough. Film sessions for the Thunder regularly include highlighted plays in which Anthony was open from 3 and didn’t get the ball.
Internally, coaches and staff have admired the way Anthony has taken on his role and stuck to it. He rarely walks inside the 3-point line, instead spacing the floor to open up rumbling rolls for Adams — who not coincidentally is having a career season — and lanes for Westbrook to attack or George to swirl around a screen. Anthony stands on the wing, hands cocked and by his hips, ready to catch and fire.
“I’ve always respected and admired that regardless of what’s happened the night before you can always count on Melo coming back in here as a professional ready to get to work.”
Thunder coach Billy Donovan
Against the Spurs, he hit those three 3s but got only six shots total (zero in the fourth quarter), and the Thunder lost as Westbrook launched some questionable heaves in the final minutes.
Anthony didn’t say a word about his lack of shots, either publicly or privately. He’s method acting, and he’s not breaking character.
It stunned the basketball world that Anthony waived his no-trade clause to leave New York for Oklahoma City, but that was all part of it. Before the “Who, me?” on media day, a reporter was setting up a question with the context most thought he’d never accept a trade to Oklahoma City, and Anthony cut him off.
“That’s because nobody really knew me, but …” Anthony said before the question resumed.
There were a lot of reasons Anthony waived his no-trade clause — getting away from the toxic situation with the Knicks being part of it — but the most significant was a desire to reset the narrative on his career. He wants to win, and to be back in the playoffs, somewhere he hasn’t been since 2014 after making it every year of his first 11 seasons. He wants to show he can sacrifice for the greater good, to give up a part of himself so a team can succeed.
The Thunder’s struggles have been difficult to pinpoint. No one thing has held them back from a true breakthrough. They should be better than their record suggests, but some nights it’s free throw shooting, others it’s rebounding, and then there was the injury to defensive stalwart Andre Roberson.
Without a primary culprit to diagnose and correct, Anthony has become the easy target because he represents an experiment that hasn’t gone as planned. And he seems to keep finding himself in the crosshairs.
He missed two critical free throws against the Boston Celtics that highlighted a six-point collapse in 20 seconds, then followed that up with the aforementioned misses against the Blazers.
Carmelo Anthony says he’s upset with himself for missing two free throws at the end of the Thunder’s loss that could have iced the game, but tomorrow he’ll be prepared to move forward and look to the next game.
What’s lost is Westbrook missed one free throw against Boston, and Adams another, while Anthony drilled two 3s and set up one for Corey Brewer that got them the lead in the first place. The shots against Portland were exactly the kind you want Anthony taking — open, off a catch — he just didn’t make them. And it was brilliance from CJ McCollum that stole that game, not the misses from Anthony, or shoddy defense.
“When you’re dealing with a long season with 82 games and the emotions of ups and downs, great wins and tough losses, emotionally and mentally, it can affect your mood, it can affect your disposition,” Donovan said.
“And I’ve always respected and admired that regardless what’s happened the night before you can always count on Melo coming back in here as a professional ready to get to work and do what he needs to do to help our group. And I’ve been really impressed with that.”
Anthony was coveted by a number of teams before the Thunder landed him in part because of his ability to go get a bucket when the game breaks down. That’s a playoff skill, when possessions grind to a halt and the game is played 24 seconds at a time. But he’ll be targeted in the postseason as opposing teams will find ways to attack him defensively, to press the Thunder into switches and try to play Anthony off the floor.
All of the Thunder’s best lineups include Anthony, but the fine print often gets lost when it comes to him. Since Roberson’s injury, the Thunder have allowed 109.3 points per 100 possessions with Anthony on the court, and 103.9 with him off (in fourth quarters, it’s 107.3 on, 102.1 off).
If the shots don’t go in to counteract that, he’ll be quickly identified as the adjustment OKC should make, fair or not. Coming off the bench was always a bridge too far, even as the Thunder struggled early on, but will Donovan roll with Melo-less lineups to close out games when they count most?
Anthony has given up more than anyone else. He has changed positions, reinvented himself as a stretch-4 and accepted nights of single-digit shot attempts. He has done what has been asked of him.
“Being willing to sacrifice, not every night having to score 20 or 30 points, and I’m good with that, it’s a good feeling,” Anthony said back in December. “As long as we’re winning.”