It was Thursday morning, just hours after the decision of the Portland Trail Blazers playoff date with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when Enes Kanter took his phone to send a quick text message.
"It looks like you're coming to Portland," he tapped before asking to send a note to his friend and former teammate Thunder Center Steven Adams.
"Let's go, boy!" Replied Adams.
And with that, one of the most intriguing and important battles of this Western Conference playoff series has been activated. When Kanter signed with the Blazers of the buyout market just before the All Star break, he knew that he was letting the Big Apple malfunction to have a chance to return to the playoffs. But he had no idea that he would become one of the focal points of the most alluring series of the first round of the NBA playoffs.
After Jusuf Nurkic fractured his leg at the end of the season on March 25, Kanter was suddenly propelled into a leading role in a team that aspired to play in a playoff race. The Blazers (53-29) scored 19-6 after the all-star break and Kanter was a substitute force for Nurkic, averaging 18.1 points and 11.4 rebounds, while recording five doubles doubles, in eight starts.
When the Blazers met on Friday for their first training for the first game against the Thunder, Kanter was still struggling to understand the reality of the moment.
"I could have finished and gone on vacation," Kanter said. "I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought," Man, I feel really lucky to be here with this team, with this organization.
"I was part of the worst team in the league. And they did not even play me because they thought I was too old. And then all the drama. God has a plan for everyone. That's why I wanted to stay out of the drama, to focus on basketball. That's one of the reasons I did not want to go (the Los Angeles Lakers). I wanted to go to Portland. This is the place for me. "
It turns out that this place will take Kanter to complete the loop to face his former team and a former teammate he will call his "brother".
During the two and a half seasons from Kanter to Oklahoma City, Adams and he became inseparable. They went out into the field during the training sessions, sat down together for film reviews, and went through the screening stories together. Then they would eat a piece when it was finished.
"He was my best friend," said Kanter. "He was like my brother."
They exchanged information and advice and communicated their strengths to help each other's weaknesses. The offensive spirit Kanter would offer advice on footwork in the post or marking in the painting. Adams, defensive, would share his ideas to defend the pick-and-roll and protect the edge.
And between the two collaborations, there was a good deal of tough competition. Their battles on the field, opposing Kanter's offensive skill to Adam's defensive power, were vicious.
"It was not basketball," Kanter said, "it was like fighting, you could almost hear the bones cracking."
You could also hear the trashy speech that only made it worse since Kanter left Oklahoma City. Adams has not hesitated to utter verbal blows to his friend, even during games, since they have become opponents.
Earlier this season, Adams mocked Kanter while he was preparing to shoot free throws, repeatedly shouting his name. When Kanter ignored him, Adams shouted, "I know you can hear me." Then, after Adams poster Kanter with a nasty dunk in a pick and roll game at the Rim, Adams brought things to a higher level.
After the game, Adams went back on the defense and would have said Knicks coach David Fizdale that it was time to shoot his friend. "He does not know how to play defense," Adams said. "We do pick-and-roll every time, under him outside."
And while verbal abuses were joking, the defensive insult touches on a legitimate concern of the Blazers in this series. While he provides a lot of points in the post and is an excellent rebounder, Kanter's defense is widely considered a handicap, and his ability to contain Adams and provide help to Russell Westbrook and to George Westbrook could decide if the Blazers will end their playoff games.
Just two years ago, after all, Thunder 's coach, Billy Donovan, turned to assistant coach Mo Cheeks during a playoff match against the Houston Rockets. . say the words"I can not play Kanter" after being clubbed by a dunk alley-oop as he ruthlessly defends the pick-and-roll. Even Kanter said that he expects the thunder to attack.
"But I think we have a very good game plan," said Kanter. "Defense is above all a question of communication, of trust. It's not just a guy. It's five guys there. If you communicate and if you trust yourself, I think that should be fine.
The Blazers insist that Kanter's defensive limits have been surpassed. CJ McCollum said Kanter "did very well on defense" and star player Damian Lillard praised Kanter's call and desire. It takes time to find solutions and develop chemistry, especially in the field of defense, and the Blazers appreciate Kanter's evolution and efforts during his 23 games in Portland.
"The most important thing for us is that he cares about him," said Lillard. "On the floor, he asks," What should I do here? Where do you want me to be? He's just trying to figure out what we need to do his best job … and help the team. And that's all you can ask. You must respect that. "
Of course, Kanter will benefit from the defense of Zach Collins, the great Blazer substitute who became their best interior defender and rim protector after Nurkic's injury. That said, Kanter will have played the lead role in 27 playoff games over his eight-year career in the NBA.
"It's an explosive offensive team with two excellent offense ratings," said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. "Kanter's role as a defender of help and defensive rebounder is our biggest concern for him. It's a team game, obviously, everyone has to do their job. But most importantly, he will be against Steven Adams, a very good offensive rebounder, who plays very well against Westbrook and Paul George. He must be able to stand up to Adams and be a good defender. "
At the start of the season, Kanter did not expect to become the focus of one of the most alluring contests in the first round of the Western Conference. And he certainly did not expect to play "brother" in April.
But here he is, ready to face an old friend, eager to prepare some verbal daggers.
"We know everyone's game," said Kanter. "I know what he's going to do, he knows what I'm going to do. I think the next step is to determine who will be more focused, who will be doing more.
"I go with a good team, with confidence and I go comfortably because I have good teammates who support me. When I was with the Knicks, (The Thunder) was still standing. We were down 20, 30 points. What would I say? But now, with Portland, I will certainly answer him. "