The final play in regulation Wednesday night made perfect sense.
Dallas owner Mark Cuban admitted last week his team had intentions of tanking the rest of the season. He was open enough that the NBA dinged him $600,000 for his honesty. And on what could have been the final play of Wednesday night's game, one the Thunder eventually won 111-110, the Mavericks did something a team that wants to surrender would find intuitive. Down two points with more than 20 seconds remaining, they held for the last shot.
It’s common basketball theory: when you’re losing in the final seconds, maybe don’t take the first available shot, but certainly hunt an open look early in the clock. Don't limit opportunity with too many dribbles.
Instead, Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea hung around the top of the key for eight seconds before Dallas began running its offense. That was when teammate Harrison Barnes set a ball screen and Barea swung to big man Dwight Powell in the middle seconds later. He received the ball back on a dribble hand-off.
He flung the rock around the perimeter. Dallas wing Wes Matthews fumbled it.
More clock ran. Matthews missed a shot. Powell clanked a putback. Most predictably of all, he hit another putback at the buzzer, sending the game to overtime.
The Mavs’ players tried. Tanking teams’ always try, sometimes even harder than others, if only because many of them are filled with fringe NBA contributors trying out for jobs next season. But the organization didn’t want a victory.
The Thunder did. And they came as close as they could to losing another game to a team far back of them in the standings.
Russell Westbrook played down that there was any reason for concern.
"What's our record against the best teams in the league?" he said, referencing the Thunder's winning record against the NBA's top teams. "We not worried. I'm not worried. Sometimes it happens like that. We know we're going to get teams' best shot. We got another team's best shot, but as long as we continue to get a win, that's all I care about."
Oklahoma City has 14 of its final 19 games against teams currently above .500. It needs wins against the dregs of the NBA however it can find them. At 19-42 coming into the evening, the Mavericks fit into that category. Make no mistake about it: they wanted to lose.
And they did, in overtime, finally.
It felt like another game when OKC either lost or came as close as possible to losing to a team it shouldn't have. It felt like a game that should have been over early, considering the Thunder once held a 15-point lead and watched it turn into a seven-point deficit.
"We've got to figure out how to motivate each other coming out of half time," backup point guard Raymond Felton said. "I've got to do a better job motivating those guys and getting those guys ready to go out there. It’s a team thing."
The Thunder aren’t just fighting for seeding in the Western Conference, they’re fighting for survival. At 36-27, they're currently seventh, one back in the loss column of third place but also one up in the loss column on ninth. They needed this win just as much as they could use another one Friday at Phoenix, the home of another tanking team that will travel far and wide just to discover new ways to lose.
The problem, of course, is that the Thunder are finding ways to lose these games, too. They've fallen to Dallas-esque teams all year, including to the actual Mavericks twice. They've barely beaten tankers Sacramento, Orlando and Memphis in recent days.
Then, there was this: a game when they got out to a comfortable lead because of springy ball movement and capable defense only to get away from both principles during the second half — especially the third quarter, which the Mavericks won 33-23.
Westbrook finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Paul George added 23 points and 11 boards. Steven Adams finished with nine points and a game-high 12 boards, including nine offensive.
Many refer to “moral wins.” Wednesday’s game was the opposite, a moral loss.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.