OKLAHOMA CITY — As the Thunder have struggled to find consistency and offensive rhythm this season, Carmelo Anthony has been at the heart of it as he adjusts to a new role and position in Oklahoma City.
But on Friday, Anthony showcased the kind of offensive player coach Billy Donovan has been envisioning playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George. With the majority of his looks, particularly from 3-point range, coming in catch-and-shoot situations, Anthony scored 24 points on 8-of-19 shooting, including 7-of-12 from 3, in a 120-117 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
“One hundred percent,” Donovan said when asked if that was the ideal kind of offensive game for Anthony. “I give him a lot of credit because this is different for him, and he’s really been open-minded about trying to do whatever he can do to help the team. And as a coach you really appreciate someone that’s been in the game such a long time and established himself as a 10-time All-Star, 14 years in the league, one of the all-time greats, that he’s willing to look at ways that he can do things a little bit differently to help our team.”
With the Hawks overcoming a 16-point second-half deficit to take a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, Westbrook and Anthony settled into a two-man game, running a heavy dose of pick-and-pop as Anthony hit a series of crucial late jumpers.
“I think for me it’s just a matter of accepting that role. That’s all it is,” Anthony said. “Realizing that’s what it’s going to be, these are the type of shots I’m going to get, this is the type of offense we’re going to be running and accepting that, and working on that role. That’s something that I’ve kind of been doing over the past week, is allowing myself to accept that role and do whatever I gotta do to make this team win.”
Anthony’s seven made 3-pointers and 12 3-point attempts were both season-highs.
“I felt like during the course of the season, those opportunities were there,” Donovan said, “but we didn’t have a good enough recognition or awareness of them, and I think we’re really more mindful of locating him on the break, in penetration, to create those shots for him. And he’s as good as anybody in the league when he’s shooting behind the line. He’s just a great, great shooter from behind there.”
Said George: “He’s one of the best in the league, and statistically over his career at catch-and-shoot. He’s definitely a weapon. I know it’s different for him, he been so used to midrange and playing off the block and elbows, but he’s a huge threat on catch-and-shoot.”
A focus for Donovan has been to reduce “nonpaint 2s,” as he likes to call them. That has meant trying to break some of the habits of Anthony, who had made a Hall of Fame career primarily in the midrange. But the Thunder saw Anthony as a stretch option, playing alongside George and Westbrook as a floor-spacing marksman. It has been a work in progress for Anthony, and he has talked often about “sacrifice,” intentionally making extra passes and seeing his scoring and attempts go down, but it’s something he said he is gaining more clarity on.
“Just talking, communication, watching film,” he said. “With coach figuring out what this team really needs from myself, and I said something back in New York that we all need to figure out what our roles are on the team, so I think I figured out what my role would be on it.”
Just five days ago, Anthony attempted only six shots, scoring four points, his lowest scoring output since 2012. Anthony said following that game, a win over the Nuggets, he was totally fine with the attempts he got, but especially because the Thunder won. Against the Jazz on Wednesday he scored 18 on 12 shots, but Friday’s game against Atlanta is something of validation for him as he has stuck with trying to play the role Donovan wants.
“Just being patient, man,” Anthony said. “Kind of with this whole process, just being patient and sticking with it, not getting down on myself. As a team not getting down when things don’t go our way. It’s something that we’re going to continue to get better at, and as long as we work at it, things will get better.”
It has been an adjustment for all three stars, with Westbrook slumping the first two months with his shot, dropping to near 38 percent from the field. The last four games, though, Westbrook has been as efficient as at any point in his career, hitting nearly 62 percent (47-of-76) from the floor, including 12-of-17 for 30 points — plus 15 assists — including a game-winning 3 with 1.7 seconds left Friday.
“Russ is our leader, Russ is one of our leaders,” George said. “We knew that we could kind of mess them up with the play we had, cause some confusion. They backed off, Russ had an easy, open opportunity, and Russ is as good as anybody when it’s closing time.”
The Thunder have won 9 of their last 12, improving to 17-15, the first time this season they’ve been two games above .500. They play at the Jazz on Saturday, a team they just blew out by 28 two days ago, and then host the Rockets for a showdown on Christmas.