The Eastern Conference finals were not supposed to be an Enes Kanter series.
The veteran big man gave Boston great minutes while jousting with Joel Embiid during a first-round sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Celtics essentially put Kanter in mothballs after Round 1 with the real possibility they might not lean on him again in the postseason because on matchups.
Kanter played just seven minutes total in Round 2 against the Raptors and it felt like that number might dip even lower against the small ball-favoring Heat. But in need of both an offensive jolt and help on the glass, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has found small pockets in the first halves of the past three games to deploy Kanter against Miami’s backup bigs.
And Kanter might just have saved the Celtics’ season with his efforts in the first half during Friday night’s Game 5.
A very tanned Kanter logged a lengthy 9-minute, 31-second stint in the second quarter on Friday — one of his longest stints of the season — and registered 8 points on 4-of-7 shooting with four rebounds and two assists.
The Celtics, down double-digits when Kanter checked in, were able to keep their heads above water thanks to the Turkish big man. They went into halftime down seven and responded with a dominant third-quarter effort that propelled them to a 121-108 triumph and trimmed their series deficit to 3-2.
“[Kanter] kind of kept us at bay,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "We were struggling, they hit some really tough shots. [Duncan] Robinson was going nuts, and Kanter's points in the paint, I thought, really helped. And kind of helped steady us and give us a chance at halftime, only being down 7.”
Kanter has logged just 95 minutes in 10 appearances this season, including a mere 27 minutes the past three games, but his impact is undeniable. He leads the Celtics in net rating this postseason at a staggering plus-22.6 with a rub-your-eyes defensive rating of 99.5 in that span.
Kanter wasted no time making an impact in Game 5. On the first possession, he ran a high pick-and-roll with Jaylen Brown and, when Miami’s defense swarmed Brown, Kanter finished a layup over Kelly Olynyk.
Next trip down, the Celtics found Kanter in the post again, this time a Brad Wanamaker lob sailing over Olynyk before a Kanter finger roll.
Kanter had a couple of assists in the final two minutes of the frame as Boston stuck close. He missed a couple tip opportunities but his energy was most important for a Boston team that needed a boost.
"Enes was amazing, great for us tonight, gave us great energy, made all the right plays,” said Kemba Walker. "That’s a guy, we brought him in for a reason. He can do special things.”
Added Tatum: “[Kanter and Daniel Theis were] big time tonight. They played with a lot of effort and heart. Especially Enes. He’s been in this league a long time. He’s in a unique situation where he never knows when he’s going to play, but he’s always ready to give us that boost, that spark on both ends, especially rebounding and giving him the ball in the low post. That just shows how good he is, and he’s a professional. He’s always ready.”
Kanter gets a lot of grief for his defense but neither the Sixers nor Heat have been able to fully exploit his pick-and-roll deficiencies. Kanter’s offensive boost and help on the glass has outweighed whatever the Celtics might sacrifice on the defensive end and it’s hard to argue when he’s got one of the best defensive ratings on the team this postseason.
If the Celtics pull off a rather improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit, Kanter could be in line for more minutes given the size of the teams remaining in the West. For now, he’ll simply have to stay ready for his opportunity.
And, as Game 5 showed, he’s ready when needed.