OKLAHOMA CITY — The last time Carmelo Anthony was in the playoffs, he was with the New York Knicks facing rising star Paul George and the Indiana Pacers back in 2013.
Now, Anthony and George are teammates with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They join Russell Westbrook in a quest for their first NBA title, starting Sunday when the Thunder host the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of their first-round Western Conference playoff series.
Because it’s been so long, Anthony appreciates the opportunity to play in the postseason. He came to Oklahoma City in a trade before training camp expecting to compete for an NBA title.
“It’s important,” he said. “I’m here now, so ain’t no looking back. I’m here. It’s important, it’s exciting. At the same time, I’m not here just to say I made it back to the playoffs. I’m here to make a statement as a team and prove why we put this team together. This is the place where I belong, we belong, and we have an opportunity to start something good on Sunday.”
Westbrook became the first player to average a triple-double in multiple seasons. He averaged a triple-double last season, too, but the Thunder won just one playoff game.
That’s where Anthony and George, who came to the Thunder in an offseason trade, come in. Last season, when the Thunder played Houston in the first round, they often struggled to score when Westbrook rested. Now, the Thunder can stagger the minutes for George and Anthony, ensuring that there is at least one big-time scorer on the court at all times.
While Anthony and George brought high expectations to the Thunder, no one expected much from Utah this season. The Jazz lost star player Gordon Hayward to the Celtics in free agency. Utah got off to a rough start but closed by winning 29 of their final 35 games to claim the No. 5 seed.
“We’re confident,” Utah center Rudy Gobert said. “It’s good to be back healthy as a team and it’s like a new season started. You don’t want to forget the great season that we had, but it’s a new one starting.”
Here are some things to watch when the Thunder face the Jazz:
Gobert vs. Steven Adams This is a matchup of two of the league’s best centers.
Gobert, at 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds, is a front-runner for top defensive player. The Frenchman is athletic, has a giant wingspan and has rare mobility for his size. He averaged 13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game this season. He’s the main reason the Jazz have the second-best defensive rating in the league.
Oklahoma City’s Adams, at 7-foot and 255 pounds, is a contender for most improved player. His strength is rare and his mobility makes him one of the league’s best interior defenders. He averaged 13.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while shooting 63 percent from the field this season. At times, he has been a go-to player for Oklahoma City’s offense when he has taken advantage of the space his teammates create. He’s among the league’s best offensive rebounders and screeners.
The Jazz rookie averaged 20.5 points per game and set the league’s rookie record for made 3-pointers with 187. He is a top contender for rookie of the year, along with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. In three games against the Thunder this season, he averaged 20.7 points on 53 percent shooting.
Corey Brewer sprained his right knee during Oklahoma City’s regular-season finale against Memphis. He did light work Friday and didn’t practice. Another Thunder shooting guard, Alex Abrines, is in concussion protocol. He was injured during a win over the Miami Heat on Monday and didn’t play against Memphis on Wednesday. Rookie Terrance Ferguson, just 19 years old, stands to get more action if Brewer and/or Abrines are limited.
The Thunder reserve forward could be a key player. In April, he has averaged 11.6 points on 77 percent shooting in about 19 minutes per game. He has become more assertive on offense this month, averaging 5.4 free throw attempts per game. He’s a dynamic dunker who has improved as a shooter at the free throw and 3-point lines. Oklahoma City’s bench struggled in the playoffs last season against Houston, so Grant’s production will bear watching.
Utah point guard Ricky Rubio quietly had perhaps the best season of his career and no longer is a liability as a shooter. He has career highs of 13.1 points per game, 42 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from 3-point range while remaining a strong passer and defender.