'Melo' is back, and so is the joy
Like flannel pajamas, a pair of slippers and a spot in front of a fire on a cold night, Carmelo Anthony has been a comfortable fit for the Trail Blazers.
And vice versa.
If there is a feel-good story in a season full of frustrations in Portland, it's the re-emergence of one of the NBA's all-time greats after a year away from the game.
Anthony goes into Wednesday night's contest against the Houston Rockets averaging 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, shooting .435 from the field, .382 from 3-point range and .830 from the free throw line. The 6-8, 240-pound power forward has been the Blazers' No. 3 option behind backcourt stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, getting more than 14 shots per game via a variety of post-ups, drives and 3-point attempts.
Beyond that, Anthony — who turns 36 in May and is in his 17th season — has been sufficient on defense and has blended in nicely, adding to the Blazers' already strong esprit de corps.
"'Melo' has been terrific," said coach Terry Stotts, who didn't know Anthony prior to him joining the Blazers. "Everybody is impressed with who he is as a person, with how he has come in and fit in both on and off the court. It has been a pleasure to have him."
Anthony had been out of commission for more than a year when he signed on with Portland on Nov. 19 for a conditional one-year free-agent contract that counts only $1.36 million against the salary cap. Last we'd seen Melo, he was being unceremoniously dumped by Houston 10 games into the 2018-19 season.
The Blazers weren't sure what they were getting, with at least a little apprehension about a future Hall of Famer's expectations.
"When he came in (to join the team), you don't know what to expect, whether he feels like he has something to prove," Stotts said. "But he fit in right away. He has taken (scoring) opportunities that are there, he's a great teammate, he passes when we need him to. He has done everything we've asked."
Anthony said he has been all too glad to do it.
"I'm happy," he said during an interview after Tuesday's practice session. "I like the group a lot. When I came in, it was like a welcome-home party. I come in and it's, 'Thank you for coming' from everybody.
"The coaches have been phenomenal with me. We talk almost every day about things I could do to help out with the team and with the young players — things I need to be doing. I've been on board with everyone and everything from Day One."
So much so that, when asked if he'd like to re-sign with the Blazers after the season, Anthony's response was immediate.
"I would love to stay," he said. "I feel like this is the place for me to end my career. It could have happened earlier, but it didn't. Now, where I'm at in my life and my career — this is where I want to retire."
The Blazers have never had a player with the credentials of Anthony — not Lenny Wilkens, not Arvydas Sabonis, not Scottie Pippen, not even the great Clyde Drexler. A 10-time All-Star and member of four U.S. Olympic teams — he won gold with three — Anthony ranks 18th on the NBA career scoring list with 26,067 points. With five points Wednesday against the Rockets, he'll move past Kevin Garnett into 17th place. Anthony is the No. 2 scorer among active players, behind only LeBron James.
Anthony's career took a serious downturn, however, when he signed on with Houston before last season. Coach Mike D'Antoni chose to use him as a reserve and, 10 games in, he was released.
Does Anthony still carry bitterness?
"No," he said. "Not anymore. I did at one time. I was confused. I was angry. I was bitter. I kept asking, 'Why? What was it? What did I do?' And I didn't get an answer.
"It took me awhile to get over that, because when you can't get an answer to something you're looking for, you start getting frustrated. It finally came to the point where I had to let it go. That's what made me detach from the game."
Anthony returned home to New York, disappointed but figuring he'd soon be with another team.
"I still was believing I was going to get back on a team," he said. "It was November. Then Dec. 15 was coming — 'You'll be back on a team.' Then the trade deadline in February.
"It was like, what did I actually do wrong for nobody to sign me? You mean there are 30 teams, and I can't make a roster? These are the things I was playing with in my head emotionally. I had to deal with that."
Anthony's agent, Leon Rose, took calls from executives representing multiple teams. Anthony had conversations with several of them, too.
"But it was never like, 'This is what we want to bring you in here for,'" he said. "Where I was at mentally, I wanted something I could feel like a part of ... to feel wanted, instead of me forcing it on anybody, and then it's not reciprocated. I stayed away from that."
So he sat out the season. And nothing happened during the summer. By the start of the 2019-20 campaign, "I thought it was over," he said, "and I was at peace with it. I was going to accept whatever was going to happen."
Then came the call to Rose from Neil Olshey, Portland president of basketball operations.
Said Anthony: "Leon called me and asked, 'What you think about Portland? You want to have a conversation with Portland?' I told him, 'Before we go down that path, I need to know exactly what the situation is. I need to talk to Terry first.'"
Stotts called, and his recruiting pitch worked.
"That was the reason why I said OK," Anthony said. "We were both very open and honest. I was candid with him about how I was feeling. He was very transparent with what he wanted from me.
"The conversation was different than it had been (with other teams). I felt welcomed and wanted as opposed to me pitching myself to somebody. When you feel that, it's hard to turn that down."
The opportunity to play with Lillard and McCollum appealed to him, too.
"Me and 'Dame' have always talked," Anthony said. "CJ and I worked out together in the summers (in L.A.). I always stayed connected and in tune with what was going on in Portland."
Anthony's performance in his first game as a Blazer was only OK. He had 10 points and four rebounds in 24 minutes, making only 4 of 14 shots from the field in a loss at New Orleans. He was better the next game, scoring 19 points with seven boards in a loss at Milwaukee. He was 0 for 8 from the 3-point line in the third game, another setback at Cleveland.
In his home debut, though, Anthony bombed in 25 points with eight rebounds in a victory over Chicago. He followed that with 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting in a win over Oklahoma City, then collected 23 points and 11 boards as the Blazers beat the Bulls again. The next day, Anthony was named NBA Western Conference Player of the Week — in the second week of his season.
"It was fun," Anthony said, "but it was better that we won all three games."
Anthony looked game-ready from the get-go. How could that be after being away for so long?
"I never stopped my training," he said. "That was the only way for me to accept and own the situation I was in. But also, that was my way of staying sharp mentally and emotionally.
"It wasn't even basketball I was doing. It was more keeping my mental and physical shape up with a personal trainer in New York. I was going every day, sometimes twice a day. But that was my way of coping with it."
There were times, though, when he would get back to basketball. Not in pick-up games. By himself in gyms in New York and Los Angeles.
"There would be times when I'd say, 'I'm going to go hard for two or three weeks,'" he said. "I would lock in with basketball activities on the court. I'd put myself in seven-minute spurts. I was training for game situations."
In Portland, Anthony has been appreciative of his starting role. In his first 15 NBA seasons, with Denver and New York and Oklahoma City, he started every game he played. In his 10 games with Houston last season, he came off the bench eight times.
"There was this narrative around me (after that), 'He don't want to come off the bench,'" Anthony said. "But that was new to me (in Houston). You're asking somebody who has been (a starter) to automatically switch off to do something else. That's what I was dealing with."
With the shoulder injury to Zach Collins, the Blazers badly needed a power forward. Anthony has filled the spot admirably, averaging 32.4 minutes per game. He has played 35 or more minutes 15 times.
"I didn't expect to play him this much," Stotts said. "There have been games where I've played him the whole fourth quarter. I don't like to do that. I try to get him out just to get him a blow in the fourth.
"Dame and CJ are in their sweet spot (age-wise). It's a lot to ask of Melo to play that much. But he has been great. When he has had to play 35 or 36 minutes, he has."
"I train myself for that," Anthony said. "I don't train to play 15 minutes a game. My mentality is, whatever it is I need to do for the team, that's what I'm going to do."
More often that not, Anthony has produced.
"The only thing that really surprises me about Melo is being able to play 30-plus productive minutes after being out of the game that long," Stotts said. "That is really impressive."
Anthony has been particularly effective powering to the basket for layups, and posting up for turnaround jumpers.
"I wanted my role defined," he said. "They said, 'We're going to run some plays for you. We want to take advantage of what you bring to the game, and not try to box you in.'
"Once I got that from them, it was like, 'Wow, OK, I'm able to play basketball. This is going to bring my joy back.' I'm able to play my game and not be boxed in and not think too much. Like, 'Should I take this shot? Should I make this play?' I don't have to think about that."
Much of the time, Anthony doesn't seem to have skipped a beat.
"He is able to get to his midrange (jumper), he is shooting the 3 well, he takes it to the basket," Stotts said. "He doesn't get the same calls (from referees) he used to get, but he is still aggressive and a very physical player inside.
"Melo is doing everything that you remember him doing. If you look at his numbers and compare them to Houston and Oklahoma City, he is above those. He doesn't have the same numbers as in New York, because we're not asking him to be that player, and he is three years older."
Beyond his game performances, Anthony has been a benefit in the locker room and on the practice court, Stotts said.
"He has provided a certain demeanor and leadership," the eighth-year Blazer coach said. "Because of the career he has had, he has a perspective that his teammates really respect.
"Melo has a great sense of not only basketball but team dynamics and personal relationships. Having had all this experience, he can see the big picture. He doesn't sweat the small stuff, but he still has a competitive nature. It's just a great package."
Anthony said he is willing to help teammates but reluctant to push advice.
"I try to work with everybody," he said. "I try to lead by example. I'm on the court working. I'm training. I'm in the weight room every day. If guys feel comfortable enough to ask my opinion, that's better than me telling them what to do.
"It can be an intimidating thing for a young player, who might be thinking, 'I don't know what to say to him.' I never wanted that. I try to make everybody feel at ease. Once we get to know each other, then the conversations roll."
Anthony enjoys being a conduit between the coaches and players.
"I always say (to coaches), 'Tell me. Be open and honest with me and tell me what I need to do,'" he said. "Because if I know that, I can translate that to everybody else."
Anthony is in a different place than he was during his peak years as a player. He understands, and accepts, that this is Lillard's team. And that McCollum is No. 2. Anthony was the marquee guy through 14 seasons with the Nuggets and Knicks. When he arrived in OKC in 2017, he was third banana behind Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
"I had to accept the fact that I'm not going where it's my team anymore," Anthony said. "That was the hardest thing. To go from (No. 1) and then overnight, it changes — that was the hardest thing I had to deal with. That was a pride hit, an ego hit. Man, it can happen that fast?
"You go from being an All-Star averaging 23, 24 points to being the third option on a team. That's the hardest hit I had. It happened in OKC, but I was happy there. I was into sacrificing and helping us win and seeing if we could get a championship. And then it was on to Houston, where it was, 'You're coming off the bench now.'"
Playing for Portland has given Anthony a chance to play with Lillard, a teammate for whom he holds great respect.
"It's incredible," Anthony said. "When I'm out there on the court with him, I'm in awe. I've never played with anybody who can do what he does, who can score as easy as he can, who can take over a game like he does.
"I'm the one who's used to doing those things. When you have a guy on your wing like that, it makes the game fun ... to know I have somebody who I can go into the trenches with. We have the same mind-set in terms of having faith and believing and knowing there is never a bad situation we can't get out of."
How has it been for Anthony to play for Stotts?
"Easy," he said, "very easy. The relationship that we have, me being a guy who has been in this league for a long time — there is a respect level there. He also knows that I'll allow him to coach me. I'm not coming in here like I know everything. Let's work together, let's figure this out, and anything you need me to do, let's talk about it. And vice versa. I think the doors are open."
Anthony, who is renting a house in Lake Oswego, said he has enjoyed his short time in Portland.
"You can feel the love and the energy from the fans and the city as a whole," he said, smiling. "Just going into the city and around my place, you can feel the love in the air."
Anthony had a nice game the first time he faced the Rockets, scoring 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go with a season-high 12 rebounds in a 117-107 win at Houston on Jan. 15. Does he have an extra feeling of motivation to face the team that sent him packing?
"If I'd have gotten picked up by a team early after that happened, I'd have that feeling," he said. "But I've gotten to a place where I'm at peace with the situation. There's no feeling toward that anymore. I played (10) games with those guys. I didn't feel a connection there."
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