To say James Harden and Patrick Beverley made Enes Kanter and Enes Kanter alone look foolish on Sunday would be a cruel form of nit-picking. The Houston backcourt made the whole of the Oklahoma City Thunder look foolish in Houston’s Game 1 win, and Kanter was similarly blistered.
Still, the 6-11 Thunder big man’s place in the series was in question long before the Rockets hung 37 points and nine assists on Oklahoma City on Sunday. Kanter’s rebounding and scoring acumen has never been in doubt – he averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in just 21.3 minutes off the OKC pine this year and added eight points and three rebounds in Sunday’s loss – but his defensive struggles have been a millstone since he entered the NBA back in 2011.
Nowhere was that more apparent than during one fourth quarter sequence that had Thunder coach Billy Donovan wondering if he should even leave his reserve big man be. Harden wasn’t even on the court when Clint Capela was able to throw in a backbreaking lob dunk off of a pass from Beverley, while Kanter came through with his usual Float Work:
P&R lob to Capela causes Billy Donovan to tell Mo Cheeks, "Can't play Kanter." pic.twitter.com/4ROFSNpFw6
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) April 17, 2017
That’s Donovan, leaning over to trusted OKC assistant Maurice Cheeks, questioning the viability of a player he saw fit to play just 18 seconds following that particular lay-in.
This is nit-picking. Especially considering the full range of what Harden gave the Thunder in Game 1 …
… and considering the knowledge that, just a decade ago, coaches like Billy Donovan never had to contend with high-definition intrigue, a Twitter confirmation, or even the sort of microphones in the huddles (then-Seattle SuperSonics coach K.C. Jones was an early victim of that) are so ubiquitous today.
(Ubiquitous upon approval from the league’s coaches, we should point out. The NBA isn’t sticking microphones in any place that hasn’t been already discussed and agreed-upon by the coaches.)
What’s less certain is Kanter’s approach moving forward. A center/forward losing an ostensible point guard in an isolation set …
James Harden puts Enes Kanter on skates, Kevin Harlan's call is fantastic pic.twitter.com/RASYxlYHSB
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 17, 2017
… is hardly cause for removal, especially when the guard of note is James Harden.
Still. Enes’ culpability in being burned has more to do with his lacking footspeed and wingspan limitations than it does, for once, the MVP-level work of Harden and the crucial emergence of what the Rockets hope will continue to be one of the league’s best two-way guards in Beverley.
Kanter was removed the next chance Billy Donovan was supplied with after the Capela stuff, and he didn’t see another second of game time in the Thunder’s blowout loss. It would be proper to point out that most of the Thunder’s best players usually sit out the burnt ends of a one-sided loss, and Russell Westbrook played just three minutes longer than Enes in the Game 1 defeat.
With that noted, we move on to recognize that every member of the Thunder starting lineup and extended rotation saw minutes after the 7:22 mark of the fourth quarter when Kanter was removed, save Enes Kanter and the already-lifted Semaj Christon (whose issues are too many to count, at this point).
Billy Donovan can’t sit his scoring big man down the stretch of what could still be a winnable series against Houston, but he certainly can’t pair him alongside the stifling floor-spacers he was surrounded with in Game 1 on offense, and Donovan certainly has to make accommodations for his defense prior to Game 2.
You know, just an offseason’s worth of personnel development, transaction work and a training camp’s worth of practice time, all thrown into the 72 hours scheduled between Games 1 and 2.
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