There are two ways that the experience of firing up League Pass can go this far into the NBA season. The first is that you catch a game with real playoff implications, hopefully between two talented teams that want to win to improve their standing. The Celtics and Raptors went to overtime on Monday, with the former trying to keep riding an unstoppable wave of excellence and the latter trying to stay out of the play-in game morass. Those games are fun and exciting, but I prefer the second kind.
That would be the games between two teams that clearly and cravenly want to lose in order to improve their draft lottery odds, but who are trapped in a situation in which one team must by definition leave with the W they are trying to avoid. These games are the best kind of mindless amusement that the league has to offer. To say that a March 28 game between the 21-52 Oklahoma City Thunder and the 27-47 Portland Trail Blazers fits this bill is an understatement, but let’s zoom in a bit. With the score close at the end of the first half, beloved Defector supporting character Aleksej Pokusevski found himself with the ball and pushing the tempo. Poku is a marvel of human anatomy, all limbs and lank, and is a chaotic enough presence that anything and everything could conceivably have happened with the ten seconds at his disposal.
He only needed five:
Basketball games are long and intricate and dynamic, so it’s often hard to boil an entire 48-minute-plus contest to one play. Not so with this one, though. Poku’s vigorous airmailing of a ball into the third row of the crowd perfectly encapsulates the tankpocalypse on display in Portland. With both teams extremely short-handed—Portland only had eight eligible and healthy players around for the fun, and the Thunder matched them by only playing eight of their own—this devolved from what was still recognizably professional basketball into a disassociating barrage of high-paced shots, their destinations plotting Jackson Pollock spatter dots around the basket. The game went to overtime somehow, a blessing that no one in attendance deserved to sit through, but the result was similar to so many recent Portland games: They lost.
Since trading away C.J. McCollum in February, Portland has fully embraced the tank. It makes sense; with Dame Lillard officially iced for the season last week after months of that being a near-certainty, Portland had some catching up to do in the loss column. The team was 21-33 before the McCollum trade, floundering in the middle of the Western swamp, but it has quickly and efficiently submarined its record, going 6-14 since. The Thunder, on the other hand, have been in tank mode all season, and even produced some fun moments independent of the broader Poku of it all. If there was a challenge here for the Blazers, it was losing to Oklahoma City.
They managed it, though, thanks to eight players that probably should not be getting as many minutes, if any, on an NBA court as they did on Monday. The 2022 version of Ben McLemore is not great, but he was the best option Portland had, and he shot 22 times, 18 from behind the arc, and made ten and eight, respectively. That’s 28 points the hard way, as were Brandon Williams’s 25. Drew Eubanks actually played well for Portland, going 12-of-14 for 27 points in a whopping 41 minutes, but if you have Drew Eubanks playing that many minutes, the pretense of trying to win basketball games has long left the building. (He’s averaging 7 points in 16 minutes per game for the season.)
In all, Portland went a hilarious 51-of-112 (112!) from the field, just out-chucking the Thunder, who put up a respectable 48-of-90. Defense was not really a thing here, is what I’m saying. That’s what “allowed” Oklahoma City to come back from ten down in the fourth to send the game to overtime. The 19-16 scoreline in the extra period resembled a particularly gnarly first quarter in some other game, but unfolded in less than half the time. This is the type of basketball that I want to see from my tank squadrons. It was futile, for sure, and there was a stink of cynicism down the stretch. But these are also a bunch of young guys trying to improve their way into more minutes. It’s Ben McLemore backing into the sort of featured role he might have expected to inherit as a lottery pick nearly a decade ago.
There’s something admirable about it, and it’s not like the players were trying to lose. Even that Poku pass, as mind-breaking as its trajectory was, seemed to be in the service of winning; after all, he chalked up eleven assists on the night, and he saw an open man. The work was all there, even if the quality was not. Someone had to lose this, and passes like that tend to happen to the teams most committed to the tank, who have little to win by actually winning. The Thunder were just unlucky on Monday to run into a more honed tanking machine; they can console themselves with looking, at times, like a real basketball team. Whatever might await Portland next year, when Lillard rejoins a roster that will have been bolstered by a high draft pick, they cannot really claim as much right now. And for that, the Blazers were the real winners and losers of Monday’s spectacle.