Appreciation for Carmelo Anthony has run rampant through the Portland Trail Blazers' players, and for good reason.
One of the NBA's best players of the past two decades has been a great addition to the Blazers, accentuated recently with clutch fourth-quarter shots against Memphis and Houston and just solid overall play in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida.
As the Blazers prepare to face Anthony's original team, Denver, at 5 p.m. Thursday, players and coaches can't say enough good things about the 36-year-old veteran.
"I've gained more appreciation for who he is as a person," Damian Lillard said. "Everybody has something to say about him (critically)," such as how Anthony plays defense, that he has aged and "he's done," questioning how he would fit in and how he would be in the locker room and "why it didn't work out with other teams."
Lillard said Anthony has been an ideal teammate, and "I find it really funny and disrespectful about how they're speaking about him. He's a Hall of Famer."
Said center Jusuf Nurkic: "He's just a regular guy, a nice person. As far as the last couple months, he's been one of best teammates to have. Real vocal. I love what he brings to the table for us."
CJ McCollum called him "Hall of Fame valuable," and Gary Trent Jr. added, "Everybody's been talking or saying something negative about him, they need to apologize. It's Carmelo Anthony, he went through times, he battled, showed resiliency. To bounce back like it's nothing, that's why he's the player he is. It's a blessing to have him on our team."
They are words that Anthony likes to hear from teammates,. He has put in work to contribute to the Blazers, working out hard and losing weight on his 6-8 frame during the four-month NBA shutdown. He switched to small forward with the return of big men Nurkic and Zach Collins (and loss of Trevor Ariza, who opted out of the NBA restart). It's his natural position, and we're seeing some of the talent that made Anthony one of the NBA's best players.
"Being able to come back mentally sharp, physically sharp, and understanding my role would be changing ... I challenged myself to do some different things," he said.
The thing is Anthony doesn't need to be the best player on the team, anymore, such as in his days with Denver (2003-2010) and New York (2011-2017), when he averaged between 20.8 and 28.9 points a game. He's basically playing a supporting role with Lillard as Portland's resident All-Star, and Anthony averages 15.3 points a game.
Coach Terry Stotts has been an NBA assistant or head coach during Anthony's entire career. He has seen Anthony transition from superstar to solid NBA player, a process that started with Anthony's stint with Oklahoma City two seasons ago and briefly last season with Houston (before being waived).
"I look at the big shots against Memphis (and Houston) and early in his career the ball would have been in his hands to start with," Stotts said. "He has assimilated himself well into his role with this team.
"He loves the game, the camaraderie and being in the NBA. He's able to savor a different part of the NBA that wasn't the same as he had earlier in his career."
Added Lillard: "He's not out there playing like he's still in New York or Denver."
Anthony's legacy has, perhaps, not been completely defined, yet. He's averaging 23.3 points a game with more than 26,000 points in 18 seasons. But, he's still playing and chasing an NBA Finals appearance — and NBA championship. While contemporaries Kobe Bryant and LeBron James won multiple NBA titles and appeared in multiple NBA Finals, Anthony's career hasn't included as much team success.
Anthony's Denver team made the Western Conference finals in 2009, losing to Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, and Anthony's New York Knicks made the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals. There have also been nine first-round exits.
Many great players haven't won NBA titles, namely Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton, and some greats haven't even reached the NBA Finals. Anthony is part of both lists, but he clearly would like to change the narrative with the Blazers, who reached the Western Conference finals last season.
He's all-in on the team.
"I understand what type of team we have and work we've been putting in. It's showing out there on the court," he said. "We have ups and downs throughout the course of the game, but how we're able to come together and fight back and win games down the stretch ... we've shown a different type of team since we've been here."
After his big shot helped seal the Houston win, he said, "We all stepped up to the challenge, stuck with the game plan. We believed in ourselves and we understood how important this game was." Anthony also added that he still lives for the big shots and "I don't think you lose that (feeling)." But, the once-prolific scorer also talked with pride about making a pivotal blocked shot and diving for a ball in the Houston game.
The Blazers (31-38) are trying to reach the West's No. 8 playoff spot, or at last secure the No. 9 spot to move into playoff play-in games.
Evidence of Anthony's commitment to the team? After Nurkic had a couple mistakes in a loss to Boston, Anthony greeted the Blazer big man in the locker room.
"He came to me and said (game's) over, and talked me through it, 'It's going to happen. We all have bad moments and bad decisions,'" Nurkic said. "He's always there for the fellas."
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