The Oklahoma City Thunder shouldn’t have had much trouble with the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, but the N.B.A is a strange league. Sometimes a 29-13 juggernaut can struggle at home against a 12-30 cellar-dweller. The Blazers got hot from deep. The thunder had a terrible jump all night long. And when Anfernee Simons hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 30.1 seconds left to give Portland a 109-106 lead, it looked like the Blazers might actually escape Paycom Center with the upset. And then the game got drunk.
Let’s start with the easy part. The Thunder called a timeout and could have attempted a game-winning 3-pointer. Instead, they opted for a quick twosome. With 25.1 seconds left, Jalen Williams cut the deficit to one with a 9-foot jumper.
With 25.1 seconds remaining, the Thunder technically didn’t have to commit a foul. They could have played the ball off, got the ball back, taken a timeout and tried to set up a final play. So you didn’t foul straight away. They tried to force a turnover and they succeeded. They caught Malcolm Brogdon. Both he and head coach Chauncey Billups attempted to call a timeout, but the referees did not stop the play, and when he put the ball on the floor again, he was called for a double dribble with 15.6 seconds left.
Chauncey Billups was outraged. Instead of trying to extend their lead on offense, his Blazers suddenly had to play defense to secure the win. So he exploded at the officials and was warned for a technical foul. But he couldn’t calm down and shortly afterwards he was whistled for a second technical foul and was sent off the field.
This gave the Thunder, who were trailing, two free throws and possession of what the Blazers believed should have been a timeout. Surely they put the game away immediately… right? Well… not quite. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed the first of his two technical free throws, his fourth miss of the night. Luckily, he scored the second goal to level the score. Jalen Williams gave the Thunder the lead with two seconds left.
The Blazers had one more chance to tie the game and send it to overtime, but they fell short when a potential lob pass from Brogdon to Deandre Ayton was broken up.
hours after the game, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Blazers plan to protest the loss to the league office. Their contention is that Billups clearly called a timeout before the referee blew the whistle for Brogdon for the double dribble. Team manager Bill Kennedy told the pool reporter after the game that the official in question might have to see Billups call the timeout.
“The referee in the slot position was directing the doubles team that was directly in front of him, making it difficult for number one to hear and difficult for number two to see that a coach behind him was calling a timeout,” Kennedy said said. “He’s taught to direct the play to completion, which is a double dribble, and he calls the double dribble properly, and then (after that) the technical fouls happen.”
From a purely analytical standpoint, the loss wasn’t that devastating for Portland. ESPN’s win probability metric never showed it was above 79.5% to win the game. But the way they lost was among the strangest defeats a team has ever suffered this season. They had the ball and the lead with 25 seconds left and somehow couldn’t get another shot on the line or from the floor. After the game, they were still at the missed timeout.
“It was a difficult situation,” Billups said said after the game. “We have time off. Referees are usually prepared for this, this case, this situation. I’m in the half court trying to call a timeout. It’s just a frustrating play. My boys played too hard for that. It’s a frustrating move.” “
Brogdon was even angrier. “Chaunce and the entire staff called for a time off,” he said said in his post-game media availability. “I literally turned to the referee on the sideline, obviously the referee didn’t want us to get a timeout so we couldn’t get one. I get scratched in the face, I end up bleeding. That’s not the case on us.”
The loss itself doesn’t mean much for the Blazers, who are far from playoff victory, but the win could mean everything for the Thunder. Their win increased their record to 30-13 and put them in a tie for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. The Thunder, Nuggets, Timberwolves and Clippers are all within one loss of each other. A single win or loss could have a huge impact on the rankings. The Thunder escaped with an unlikely win on Tuesday, and that could make all the difference come April.