Enes Kanter is about to face the toughest challenge of his basketball career. Not against the known elites such as Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert, but a playoff newcomer. A plush, feathery basketball mind decades ahead of his time: Nikola Jokic.
The Portland Trail Blazers is about to embark towards Denver, where the team will take on the Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. The winner of the best-of-seven series will advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in at least a decade. Denver hasn’t been since 2009. Portland since 2000.
Damian Lillard is the superstar of the series. Jokic is not far behind him. Jamal Murray and C.J. McCollum are the secondary stars. Both teams are littered with above average role players. But Enes Kanter is going to have to play at an entirely different level – and do so on a bad shoulder. This isn’t anything like it was when Portland took down the Oklahoma City Thunder in round one. Steven Adams is a respectable center for OKC, but one known for his rebounding prowess and brute strength. Jokic is redefining what it means to play the center position in the modern era.
Kanter averaged 13.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in five outings against the Thunder. He shot over 57 percent from the field and connected on 80 percent of his free throw attempts. His offense, however, has never truly been the issue for him. Most of his made buckets were assisted on and he shot 65 percent at the rim – a respectable, albeit still low, shooting clip (for reference, Adams shot 72 percent at the rim during the series). Kanter dominated the glass on both ends of the court and even outplayed Adams in that department. Overall, the Blazers posted a plus-6.2 net rating when both Kanter and Adams were on the floor. Alongside McCollum and Lillard, Kanter’s offense didn’t necessitate anything extraordinary. He just needed to finish the chances his lead guards were feeding him. Which he did.
The calling card against Kanter has always been his defense. But when playing the Thunder, he wasn’t anywhere near the liability he has been in the past. If anything, he was exposed more in one-on-one situations than when he was defending the pick-and-roll. Check out this defense in Game 1 on Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder targeted Kanter in the pick-and-roll consistently throughout the series, and while he didn’t defend every shot exactly like this, his strategy was the same. He carefully sunk back on defense and waited for Westbrook to attack him instead of meeting Westbrook head-on, insisting the ball handler make the mistake while he uses his size to contest shots. The Thunder attempted and made fewer shots at the rim and in the short mid-range with Kanter on the court compared to when he was on the bench, according to Cleaning the Glass.
There were several instances, especially at the beginning of the series, where Adams would simply post up on the block (usually without much pushback from Kanter), demand the ball, and flail his way to the basket where he’d toss up an easy hook shot. Adams finished with a true shooting percentage of 64.8 percent against Kanter on only five fewer shots in the series.
However, Jokic is going to be a whole different kind of beast. Denver loves to run a flurry of dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls with Jokic/Murray. Sometimes Murray will act as the ball handler with Jokic as the roll man, but where they really confuse teams is when they inverse it with Jokic as the ball handler and Murray the roll man. How Kanter and the Blazers defend this will be a huge indicator of how Denver runs its offense in this series.
Jokic often times has a reluctance to shoot the ball, something that should help Kanter. While Jokic can beat any defense with his elite passing ability, if he isn’t making Kanter work on defense then it’s a wash. But the always scanning eyes of Jokic will test how much awareness Kanter is paying at all times. Jokic can burn teams with endless backdoor cuts and outlet passes. And if he isn’t firing from deep, Kanter needs to sink back similar to how he did against the Thunder and dare them to attack him.
I’m curious to see how Kanter defends a Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll where he has to defend Jokic with the ball in his hands. Jokic isn’t exactly quick enough to beat Kanter off the dribble and to the rim, but he can manipulate and bend a defense until everything is set up perfectly for him. Jokic runs an offense like he’s the only one controlling the pieces to the puzzle and the Nuggets are damn hard to stop because of it. It’s going to be up to Kanter to try and muck things up without getting himself out of position. Because even when he’s defending the ball, it’s more than just staying in front of Jokic. You have to read his eyes. Jokic’s brain is already two possessions ahead. Kanter can’t gamble.
I honestly can’t decide if I’d rather have Jokic post up on Kanter or run the offense. Both outcomes don’t supply me with a confident ending favoring the Blazers. If Jokic recorded just a few more assists, he would have averaged a triple-double for the entire Spurs series. At 23-years old, there isn’t much he can’t do on offense. Kanter’s best bet might just be to sag all the way off; Make Jokic shoot it from deep (he was 33 percent from three against the Thunder and 30.7 percent in the regular season) while trying to disrupt anything he might try to run through the paint.
The Blazers likely won’t run much directly for Kanter on offense. They didn’t do it that often in round one against Adams, and while Jokic is probably a better matchup for Kanter on that end, Lillard and McCollum will receive the bulk of the scoring duties (as they should). Kanter wasn’t even all that efficient against the Thunder. Most of his shots came right at the rim – which he barely made at an average clip – and 48 percent of his made shots were assisted, a number that ranks in the 100 percentile among big men in the playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Kanter’s two best games in round one uncoincidentally happened when he stayed out of foul trouble. 20 points and 18 rebounds in Game 1 then 13 points and 13 rebounds in Game 5 were sandwiched around subpar, foul-riddled outings in Games 2 and 4. He also picked up five fouls in the lone loss of the series in Game 3. Kanter’s best attribute right now is his availability. Without him, they have to turn to a second-year player not yet ready for the moment in Zach Collins or the 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard. The Blazers need Kanter on the floor as much as possible. He’s currently listed as questionable for Game 1. The team needs his shoulder to cooperate. He’s the team’s top rebounder and the only big man they have with quality playoff experience.
Game 1 featuring the Trail Blazers and Nuggets tips off on Monday night in Denver at 10:30 p.m. on TNT.