When Carmelo Anthony finally got the call in November after more than a year out of the game, he made a less than stirring debut for the Portland Trail Blazers as they fell to 5-10. And it generated criticism that it was a public relations move for a team falling backward.
After all, Anthony had been unable to find a job. He was 35 years old at the time and his most recent stops were littered with quick failures. The sure Hall of Famer had been forced out of New York, lasted just one season in Oklahoma City and — the final insult — was unceremoniously pushed aside after only 10 games in Houston.
But if there were doubters, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard was not one of them. He met with Anthony and expressed his belief that there was a place for him in Portland. And now Lillard is not alone.
“I think it’s summed up, when Dame met Melo that night in New Orleans after we had signed him and we had people questioning the signing, was it a publicity stunt?” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said in an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “I mean, my God, it was Carmelo Anthony. People were acting like this was the New York Mets signing a 40-year-old Willie Mays.
“We got him and put him in the starting lineup. Dame said, ‘This is not how your story is going to be written. What they were trying to do to you is not what is going to happen. That’s not going to be your story and we’re going to change it here.’ ”
That story is still going. The Trail Blazers, with Anthony playing a major role, managed to slip into the NBA’s 22-team bubble restart and went 6-2 in the seeding portion, earning a spot in the play-in game against Memphis. The Blazers won, with Anthony delivering a dagger shot late to put the game out of reach.
And on Tuesday night, Anthony contributed 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to help Portland beat the Lakers in Game 1 of their first-round series.
Anthony hasn’t been the star he once was. The last time he’d faced longtime friend LeBron James in a playoff series was in 2012, when Anthony was the leader of the Knicks, and he averaged 27.8 points per game in the series against James and Miami. Now he clearly is the third option behind Lillard and CJ McCollum.
“I don’t look at it that deeply,” Anthony said before Game 1. “This is just another opportunity for me. We’ve had our times, our battles. The positive thing on all of this is that we’re actually able to do this, compete at this level against each other in year 17. That’s how I look at this, being able to go out there this late in our career, year 17, knowing the history that we have on the court, off the court. That’s the fun part for me.”
Not only did Anthony stay in shape while waiting for a team to give him a chance, but after playing through the regular season until the shutdown, he went home and worked even harder. With Zach Collins and Josef Nurkic coming back from injuries, Anthony saw that he might have to move from power forward to small forward. He turned 36 years old during the break, but when he arrived in Orlando, he immediately added a new nickname — Skinny Melo.
“The guy completely transformed his body over the hiatus and he’s been a starting three, which everybody complained he wasn’t over the last three years,” Olshey said. “Everybody is thrilled for Melo.”
He shot just 3-for-11 on Tuesday, but with the Blazers tied at 89-89, they won the game with clutch shooting. Lillard delivered a 36-foot three-pointer and then Anthony hit a three-pointer with 2:32 to play. But even before the shot, he opened eyes early in the game with his defense against James and his pretty no-look touch pass on Hassan Whiteside’s dunk.
Anthony had 20 points, six rebounds and four steals Saturday night in Game 3. The Lakers beat Portland, 116-108, to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
“I was really happy for Melo and Gary Trent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said after Game 1. “Neither one of them was shooting the ball that well throughout the game, but the ball movement, the trust, Melo hit a shot a little deeper than he usually takes it. . . . We trusted them and they trusted their shot. We’ve won some games down here in Orlando already because of those type of plays and that shotmaking. I’m glad that’s part of our game, that trust.”