Thunder–Mavericks Deserved A Better Ending

The closing stretch of Game 6 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks featured some spectacular shooting and play-making. An off-balance 26-footer from Kyrie Irving that took a high bounce off the rim before dropping through to give Dallas a one-point lead with around three minutes to play; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander erasing that lead with what felt like his 50th smooth step-back jumper of the night; Derrick Jones Jr. recovering a tipped Irving shot and tossing in a parabolic fade-away jumper over OKC’s Chet Holmgren to give the Mavs, who’d been in deep shit at halftime and trailed pretty much all game, a five-point lead with just over a minute left to play. Gilgeous-Alexander, impossibly cool, immediately sauntering into a pull-up three from the top of the key with 18 seconds left on the shot clock, and swishing it to cut the lead back to two.

The Thunder are too young to be this composed in these kinds of moments. With 20 seconds left to play and OKC trailing by a point, Gilgeous-Alexander drove past Dereck Lively II, spotted Holmgren lurking in the dunker’s spot on the baseline, and flipped up a perfect one-handed alley-oop lob, which Holmgren pounded down with both hands. Once again, for emphasis, this was with their team 20 seconds from elimination, in the first playoff run of either of their careers, on the road. These men are a combined 47 years old.

For all that, it’s a shame that Game 6 came to be decided by perhaps the most ragged and shambolic possession of the night: Luka Doncic clumsily backing himself into a double-team in the middle of the lane, losing the ball as he pivoted out of the crowd, and just kinda slapping it to P.J. Washington in the corner; Washington, with less than five seconds now burning away on the clock, shot-faking Gilgeous-Alexander into the air and then rushing a double-clutched three-point attempt as Gilgeous-Alexander slapped first the ball and then Washington’s forearm. And then, all too familiar in the highest-leverage moments of NBA games these days, a dubious whistle, a video review, and some free throws nobody feels all that sure should have been awarded, with far too little time left on the clock for the game to recover. Gilgeous-Alexander had gotten the ball first—but Washington’s double-clutch, the idea (I think) goes, constituted a second attempt at releasing the shot, this time with Gilgeous-Alexander’s hand raking down his forearm.

I suppose that’s right, or anyway defensible; Gilgeous-Alexander certainly did slap Washington’s arm after slapping the ball, and it seems reasonable to expect that to have affected Washington’s attempt at getting the shot off. Fine, OK, it’s a three-shot shooting foul. On the other hand, if the referee hadn’t blown the whistle there, nobody but Mavs fanatics would feel all that grave an injustice had been done; Gilgeous-Alexander had, after all, also just straight-up blocked the shot—it was an astounding athletic play, by the way—and the series could then have been settled in Game 7 rather than at the free-throw line. If that’s not ideal either, fine, but it would have been more fun for me, a neutral fan, and that is what matters. Oh well.

(Speaking of me, the protagonist of reality, somehow Xfinity cable had an outage of only the ABC network across the entire D.C. metro area on Saturday night, consuming much of the early and middle of Game 6 and none of any of what was on the other 1,200 or so channels. That sucked!)

In any event, with 2.5 seconds left on the game clock Washington, who’d struggled for all but like three of his 30 minutes of playing time, made the first two from the stripe, and then intentionally missed the third. OKC’s Jalen Williams missed a rushed, hopeless zillion-footer as time expired, and that, somewhat anticlimactically, was that. This game deserved an ending free from the blight of video review, but those basically don’t happen anymore.

The Mavericks are on to the conference finals, to await the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets, and the Thunder and their fans will have to console themselves with having an incredibly cool and impressive young team with every reason to expect they’ll get an even better crack at the playoffs next year. That’s something!

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