* On TNT: Rockets vs. Thunder (8 ET)
When Kevin Durant made his return to Oklahoma City, he almost had to wipe the icing off his jersey after all the verbal “cupcakes” thrown at him.
Thunder fans normally practice Midwestern hospitality to opposing players but they cut loose against the former Kia MVP who dumped them for the Warriors.
When Carmelo Anthony makes his return to OKC on Thursday, there’s a good chance of silence, which in some ways will be just as insulting, maybe more. Fans don’t boo and hiss at players they don’t miss all that much, players who didn’t leave many memories, players they barely knew.
And that will be yet another sign of reality for 'Melo. The reaction that superstars create and earn, good and bad, no longer follows him. He’s left to salvage what’s left of a Hall of Fame career as part of the supporting cast in Houston where he doesn’t get his number called in the clutch. Where he doesn’t take the most shots. Where the fortunes of the Rockets don’t rise or fall drastically with him.
The twilight can be a humbling and often haunting place for most former stars and 'Melo isn’t an exception. The difference between OKC, where he spent one uncomfortable season coping with his basketball mortality, and Houston is he has finally come to grips with this new normal.
“I’m just doing what I can,” Anthony said. “Whatever this team needs. The only thing I can really do is what they ask me to do.”
During 'Melo's prime when he was with the Nuggets and the Knicks, there was no conforming or conceding: “No chance,” he said. But there was no need for that, either. With a textbook jumper and a green light, 'Melo was good for 25, 30 points a night. Those systems and those teams depended heavily on a player who could score anywhere on the floor and who devoured defenders one-on-one.
The downshift began in his final season with the Knicks, where knee issues combined with the smashing arrival of rookie Kristaps Porzingis conspired to respectfully nudge Anthony to the side. Then the process gained speed in OKC, where he grumbled about his reduced role, wondered about his future and finally crashed in the playoffs where he spent time on the bench in the fourth quarter. This was all new to 'Melo, and shocking.
And what did that experience do for him?
“It taught me that you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice,” Anthony said.
He admits he wrestled with that in OKC -- still does, even now with the Rockets, although not as much. The tough part about players with 'Melo’s body of work is this: When the skills fade, the ego doesn’t. The belief that he can isolate on his man and score at will and the desire for the ball remains strong at age 34, almost impossibly so, stubbornly so.
In retrospect, 'Melo’s lone season with the Thunder was destined to be an unhappy one. He never wanted to leave New York, where he keeps a home, where he loved the lifestyle. He rented in OKC. And he came to the Thunder after a pair of knee surgeries and after 13 years in the NBA.
Also: There was Russell Westbrook. As a ball-dominant point guard, it was Westbrook who decided who gets what shot, not Anthony. Playing with Westbrook was easier for Paul George, someone with a milder ego and who didn’t need plenty of shots and could impact a game in other ways such as defense. 'Melo needed to score; that’s what he does. Or did, anyway. And 'Melo never had a teammate like that in his life -- high school, college or NBA.
What’s more, coach Billy Donovan wanted 'Melo out of the post (keeping the lane clear for Westbrook) and stationed outside the 3-point line. Donovan made 'Melo a catch-and-shooter, which he was not. In the past, Anthony's buckets came along the baseline and at the rim and on pull-up jumpers not always from deep. In his greatest seasons, 'Melo never made more than two 3-pointers per game on average.
For the most part, he good-soldiered his way through the season although his body language didn’t lie. The Thunder lurched along, reached the playoffs and then were erased by the Jazz. Annoyed at being benched in that series, 'Melo fed the perception, true or not, that he wasn’t willing to change for the team’s sake. In reality, he felt his new role wasn’t helping him or the team, but no one wanted to hear or believe that.
“I wasn’t clear on what I needed to do,” he said. “It was confusing to me.”
So he arrives in Houston this season by way of the Hawks, who bought out his contract after a trade with OKC, and what happens? 'Melo is the third option, just like in OKC, and is coming off the bench, which he refused to do in OKC.
Time humbles everyone.
Six years ago 'Melo averaged 28 points and took 22 shots a night. Now he’s down to 14 and 12. And he’s checking into games at the eight-minute mark of the first quarter. And he’s not always on the floor late in the fourth.
If there’s any consolation, he’s with Chris Paul, his friend, and given a fresh start by coach Mike D’Antoni despite the sometimes static-filled relationship they had in New York when D’Antoni coached the Knicks.
“I’m clear about what my role is on this team and how effective I’ve got to be,” Anthony said. “But it’s still a challenge for me as well. A challenge to play differently than I’ve played in the past, to go from having the ball to relying on other guys to get you the ball, picking your spots, being ready. Sometimes you don’t get the ball 4-5 times down the court, and when you do, you got to be ready to shoot it.”
It's all new. Still new to me.
As for coming off the bench: “That’s a big adjustment. Its’ not like I can get my own rhythm. You got to be ready from the get-go, be ready to go as soon as you get on the court. It’s eight minutes and the flow of the game has already been established. Sometimes you may not have it.”
He adds: “It’s all new. Still new to me.”
The tough part is 'Melo replaced Trevor Ariza on the wing, and Ariza was superior defensively. With the rangy and athletic Ariza last season, the Rockets ranked seventh last season on defense and it was a main reason they grabbed the top seed in the West. Now they’re down to 21st -- coincidence? -- and when 'Melo’s on the floor, the Rockets allow 114 points per 100 possessions, compared to 98 when he’s off.
Therefore, unless he’s putting up points, 'Melo’s a risk.
It’s not the way he visioned himself winding down a career where, at one point during a decade-long stretch, he was one of the game’s top offensive players, someone who routinely drew double teams. But this sudden cold splash hits everyone who isn’t willing to see it coming.
“You’ve got to be mentally strong to fight through it, and at the end of the day, you just want to be a positive asset to this team and help us win,” he said.
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