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 down 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 by taking the air out of the ball.
Instead, Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea dribbled around the top of the key for 8 seconds before Dallas began running its offense. That was when teammate Harrison Barnes set a 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. He missed a shot. Powell missed 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 by fringe NBA contributors trying out for jobs next season. But the organization didn’t want a victory.
The Thunder did.
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.
The Thunder aren’t just fighting for seeding in the Western Conference, they’re fighting for survival. At 36-27, they 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. Someone just had to beat the Mavs, a team they’ve already fallen to twice this season. They've lost to Dallas-esque teams all year. 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.
Russell Westbrook finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Paul George added 23 points and 11 rebounds. Steven Adams finished with nine points and a game-high 12 boards.
Many refer to “moral wins.” Wednesday’s game was the opposite, a moral loss.