Playoffs 2018 West First Round: Thunder (4) vs. Jazz (5)

Carmelo Anthony's playoff vantage point unlike one he's ever had before

Series proving future Hall of Famer's role has declined from glory days

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

* Tonight on ESPN: Thunder vs. Jazz (10:30 ET)

SALT LAKE CITY — Sunsets aren’t always golden and glorious. In the case of most professional athletes, they can be downright grim. They are a prelude to darkness and the bitter end, coming without regard to stats, status and what-you-used-to-be.

The proud ones battle and fight and ignore the obvious signs anyway, and often, in the case of Carmelo Anthony, they’re stuck in a temporary case of denial. This was in full view in the second half of Game 5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz series. That’s when Anthony was benched with the season on the line, which has happened, like, never before in his basketball life.

As the Thunder rallied fiercely, historically actually, with Russell Westbrook and Paul George — two-thirds of the OKC big Three — rescuing OKC from a 25-point crater, Carmelo looked up the bench from his seat, stared toward coach Billy Donovan, waiting for a signal that never came.

Sometimes in these situations, while the coach is busy studying the floor, the lead assistant coach is the point man for substitutions. In OKC, such respect is given to Maurice Cheeks — the freshly-appointed basketball Hall of Famer. Anthony turned to Cheeks. Cheeks turned the other cheek.

And so, the pride and ego of a 10-time All-Star and one of the most dangerous scorers of the last two decades surfaced and erupted. Melo took his frustrations out on Cheeks, raising his voice, demanding to be inserted into a game that had already flipped drastically in OKC’s favor without him.

It was a bad look, an uncomfortable one for a player who, despite his own Hall-worthy credentials, managed to force-feed the reputation he carried to OKC last summer, fair or not. ‘Melo appeared selfish, worried about his role and his minutes and his contributions instead of conceding that, at least in this game, he was better off being a spectator. Until that point, Melo’s benching wasn’t a surprise. He’d missed four out of his six shots and even worse was getting burned defensively: Joe Ingles and especially Jae Crowder buried OKC from deep.

So, Melo was yanked in the third quarter and sat all but the final few minutes of the fourth, once the comeback was complete.

The OKC locker room after Game 5 was a mixture of relief and enthusiasm. Relief from salvaging an embarrassing first half. And enthusiasm that was packed in suitcases and taken on their flight here for Game 6. Meanwhile, tucked in a corner of the room was Anthony, sitting silently as the locker room emptied, finally dressing and rising to his feet well over an hour after the buzzer.

“It was just me wanting to play, me wanting to be a part of what was going on out there,” he said of his argument with Cheeks. “My competitive nature just took over at that point, me wanting to be a part of that atmosphere and that game.”

Understand this about ‘Melo: he has always been stand-up and accountable. That was true even in New York, where he never ducked tough questions that needed to be asked, even those about Phil Jackson. Even those about his own skills here at age 33.

But what he says in public and what he says in the mirror could be two different versions of the truth. It’s hard for All-Stars to accept the obvious, to concede erosion, to confront reality when they arrive at “that point” in their career. And make no mistake, if this troublesome season in OKC is proving anything, it’s that Anthony is no longer a lead singer in this league. He’s a complimentary piece who sometimes delivers a flashback before settling into that euphemism that star players often sneer at: role player.

He played just 25 minutes total in Game 5, lifted for Alex Abrines (!) and Jerami Grant and was turned into a bench cheerleader who refused to cheer. That makes sense, to a degree; in this series leading up to Game 5, Anthony averaged 34 minutes a night. But: Anthony has been largely invisible and arguably a liability in those ample minutes.

He’s averaging just 12.8 points against the Jazz, and while that’s not particularly shocking given the load carried by George and Westbrook, Anthony is shooting just 37 percent overall and 21 percent on 3-pointers. Once you consider the reasonable number of open looks he gets, those are blown scoring chances for the Thunder, which are costly against a stellar defensive team such as the Jazz.

All this followed a regular season in which Anthony suffered sweeping career lows across the board.

Donovan always maintained that of the three players, Anthony has dealt with the biggest adjustment. He’s had to change his mindset, his looks at the basket, his position on the floor, his number of shots and his ego. For the first time in his basketball life, dating back to elementary school, Anthony isn’t the primary option on his team — and, no, his one-month cameos on the star-stuffed US Olympic teams didn’t prepare him for this.

It’s no surprise, then, that Anthony’s body language looked the most uncomfortable with this bold experiment, although he handled it well until Wednesday.

He also didn’t prepare his body for his 30s, unlike workout-room beasts LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and others. Some of this wasn’t Melo’s fault, like the knee surgeries. But is he lighter and leaner? Stronger? Fitter?

The system used by Donovan isn’t doing Anthony any favors, either. In his prime, Anthony was tough near the paint, which allowed him to stock up on free throws attempts nightly. This season he averaged 2.5 free throw attempts because he’s mainly anchored near the 3-point line, where he stands and waits for kick-outs from Westbrook.

With the Thunder down 3-2 and playing Friday on the road, there will be no appeasing Anthony. Donovan might choose to stick with a lineup of Westbrook, George, Grant, Abrines and Steven Adams during stretches if only because it gave Utah fits in Game 5. Most likely, Donovan will give Anthony a chance, at least early, to develop a flow and make himself dangerous to Utah. If that fails, Anthony said there won’t be any repeat of his animated bench decorum.

“If they have it going,” he said, “I’ll understand.”

That’s the proper approach and sometimes playoff matchups just aren’t in your favor (just ask Hassan Whiteside).

Anthony has an option year for $27.8 million next season. If he was in his 20s, he’d opt-out to test the market and certainly would get a long-term, max deal from someone.

But now? Players tend to know where they truly stand when it comes to money, and Anthony is no fool. He knows there’s no free-agent jackpot awaiting him in July.

In some ways, then, this first-round series is Anthony’s last stand, and he can’t do that while sitting.

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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