OKLAHOMA CITY — Carmelo Anthony said he was surprised to be on the bench for the entire fourth quarter — including the final play of regulation with a chance to win — in the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s 126-125 overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday.
“Yeah, of course,” Anthony said. “Of course I wanted to be there, but that wasn’t my decision to make, so I kind of leave that to coach on that one.”
Anthony, who walked to the scorer’s table with about three minutes left in regulation to check in, elected to sit himself back on the bench after Jerami Grant hit a corner 3 to put the Thunder up six with 2:22 left. Anthony waved his hand at the court after Grant’s 3 dropped and walked back to the bench, telling Donovan to stick with Grant. Though after Will Barton tied the game with 15 seconds left on a spinning layup, Donovan called timeout to draw up a final play, still leaving the 10-time All-Star on the sideline. Russell Westbrook missed a 3-pointer with two seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
“I was sitting for the whole fourth and there was like two and some change on the clock,” Anthony said. “[Grant] hit that 3, so it was like just let him continue to go out there and just play it out and see what happens. But then we wind up going to overtime.”
Anthony subbed back in to start the overtime period, quickly hitting a pick-and-pop 3 with 2:40 left to put OKC back up two. Anthony finished with 23 points on 9-of-21 shooting (5-of-10 from 3) plus 9 rebounds, as the Thunder dropped a third straight game, falling to sixth in the Western Conference.
“It was kind of a hard thing, I wanted to put Melo back in the game, but I think that unit was playing so well at that particular time, we were on a pretty good run, we were playing good, Jerami made a 3 when I wanted to put Carmelo back in,” Donovan said. “Carmelo’s always been a team guy, I think he felt like ‘OK, Jerami’s playing well, let him go, let him play.'”
Anthony said it’s the first time in his career he can remember telling a coach to play someone else that late in a game.
“I think I’ve done it before, but not that late in the game, and in the quarter,” he said. “I’ve done it before where a guy has it going and didn’t want to break his rhythm. A lot of times when guys have it going like that, especially role players guys, bench guys, that gives them confidence, that you do believe in those guys. But not that late in a game like that, never did that.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time that Anthony didn’t play in the fourth quarter of his 44 career overtime games. His previous low for minutes in the the fourth quarter in such a game was three against the Suns on Dec. 13, 2016, as a member of the New York Knicks.
With the Thunder falling behind double digits to the Nuggets in the third, Anthony ended up playing the entire quarter and was visibly gassed. Anthony’s normal rotation of late has been to sub out late in the third and re-enter in the fourth with around six minutes left.
“Sometimes when you’re subbing a guy in a normal rotation and a guy gets going a little bit, a guy will say ‘let him go, let him go,’ and I think that’s what Carmelo did,” Donovan said. “Jerami made a 3 out of the corner, he was playing well, and he said, ‘let’s let him keep going’ … and I’m fine with that because to me that’s a sign of unselfishness and wanting someone else to do well.”
On Sunday in a loss to the Trail Blazers, the Thunder were in a similar situation with Grant appearing to be a stronger matchup down the stretch, but Donovan subbed Anthony back in with six minutes to go. Anthony missed his final three shots of the game — including one at the buzzer that would’ve forced overtime — and had a critical turnover, sparking discussion if Donovan should’ve finished with Grant instead. Following that game, Donovan said, “We’re going to go with him in that situation.”
Anthony stood on the baseline with his hood on and a towel wrapped around his shoulders talking with teammate Raymond Felton during the closing minutes of the fourth. Postgame, the talk from Thunder coaches and players pushed the idea that Anthony made the decision out of unselfishness.
“Melo’s a veteran guy, and for whatever reason, he felt [Grant] the best fit for the unit to close the game out,” Paul George said. “He made his impact for us still down the stretch, hitting a big 3 in OT. It’s just Melo making a team decision.”
“You’re talking about a guy that played extremely well himself,” George said. “Shot the ball at a high level and was instant buckets, timely baskets, big shots, big 3s. And for him to let [Grant] continue on with the group out there, it definitely says a lot about who Melo is and his character.”