By Anne M. Peterson

The Associated Press

Thunder vs. Blazers

Tuesday at Portland 7:30 p.m.

Friday at OKC 6:30 p.m.

Sunday at OKC 6:30 p.m.

x-April 23 at Portland TBA

x-if necessary

PORTLAND — Looking back on it now, the Trail Blazers were clearly smart to pick up Enes Kanter after he was waived by the New York Knicks.

Kanter was brought aboard by Portland as insurance for the final stretch of the season, meant to back up starter Jusuf Nurkic.

Then Nurkic broke his left leg and Kanter was thrust into a starting role with his new team. After Portland’s playoff-opening victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Damian Lillard dubbed the 6-foot-11 center the Blazers’ MVP.

“He had a huge presence down the stretch and played a huge part in us winning this game,” Lillard said after Portland’s 104-99 victory Sunday.

Kanter finished with 20 points and a career playoff-high 18 rebounds, and he was effective on defense against the likes of OKC stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

Kanter, 26, was waived by the Knicks following the trade deadline. Once a starter, he fell out of the rotation altogether when New York — which finished with the worst record in the league — turned its focus to younger players.

Kanter, who came to the Knicks in 2017 from Oklahoma City in the Carmelo Anthony trade, averaged 14 points and 10.8 rebounds in 115 games over two seasons.

The Blazers picked him up just before the All-Star break, envisioning him as the second-team center. But on March 25, Nurkic crashed awkwardly to the court during a game at home against the Brooklyn Nets. Nurkic, who was averaging 14.6 points and 10.4 rebounds, broke his leg in two places and was lost for the season.

Born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey, Kanter missed a game in Toronto shortly after joining the Blazers because he felt like his life might be in danger if he left the United States. As a result of his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter had been labeled a terrorist by Turkey. His passport was revoked and Turkey reportedly issued a warrant for his arrest with Interpol.

His travel concerns caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who has urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell Turkish leaders that any retribution against Kanter for his criticism of their government would be “unacceptable.”

Wyden, the senior senator from Oregon, personally met with Kanter before a Blazers game last month.

“Here in Rip City, we push back against bullies,” Wyden said. “We expose them, we try to make sure the world knows what kind of sleazy tactics they’re using. I told Mr. Kanter as Oregon’s senior senator and Oregon’s guy on the senate Intelligence Committee, that I’m in this fight all the way, because we’re a community that values the rights of free speech and free expression, and we don’t walk away when a bully comes in and tries to shove around one of our own.”

Kanter has not tempered his criticism. Even after Sunday’s victory he posted to Twitter: “Great team win today! But feeling sorry for all NBA fans in Turkey as they can’t watch any #NBAPlayoffs games that I’m playing in. #DictatorErdogan government censors even the most loved games on the planet!”

At this point, Kanter is simply grateful the Blazers gave him another chance.

“After we got the win I was walking to the locker room and I saw the GM Neil (general manager Olshey) and he told me, ‘What a great decision, right?’” Kanter said. “And I said, ‘I appreciate it. Thank you so much.’”