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Tramel: NBA bubble has failed the basketball test

The NBA bubble began with such promise. Pelicans-Jazz, Lakers-Clippers. Both decided by two points, with a game-winning 3-pointer bouncing off the rim at the buzzer of each game.

The next night, Blazers-Grizzlies and Rockets-Mavericks each went overtime. The NBA restart seemed like the best Orlando idea since the Cardinals traded for Cepeda back in ’66.

And the bubble itself has been exactly what the NBA needed. A force field against the pandemic. Orlando has passed the coronavirus test. Alas, the bubble has failed the basketball test.

The Thunder beat Miami 116-115 Wednesday night in a wild game. OKC trailed by 22 points in the fourth quarter, yet took the lead on Mike Muscala’s 3-point shot with 5.2 seconds left, then won it when the Heat’s Tyler Herro was short on a 26-foot jumper at the buzzer.

Wild, yes. Monumental, no. The game was a symbol of all things bubble. Neither team particularly dedicated to winning.

The Heat led 66-62 at halftime, then Miami coach Erik Spoelstra benched most of his best guys. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala all sat the entire second half. The only starter who played, Goran Dragic, played less than six minutes. Herro and Solomon Hill each played 24 minutes.

Billy Donovan reacted to Spoelstra’s strange lineups by pulling the Thunder starters midway through the third quarter after they showed little interest in defending the Heat junior varsity.

Donovan seemed to be playing with Marquess of Queensberry honor. If your opponent drops his sword, don’t run him through. Drop your sword, too.

After a stoppage with 5:09 left in the game, there were no substitutions. The only timeouts in those five minutes were in the final 11 seconds. This game seemed like an October exhibition game in Little Rock.

And that’s been the standard in Orlando, for most teams. Resting players. Indifferent to winning. Tanking for seeding purposes. Lots of blowouts.

To the Thunder’s credit, no one ducked the accusation.

“Tell you the truth, none of these games really meant much, other than playing the games, because a big piece of our team wasn’t here,” said Chris Paul, referring to Dennis Schroder, who missed all but the bubble opener against Utah, to be with his wife upon the birth of their second child.

The teams scratching to reach the Western Conference play-in series – Memphis, San Antonio, Phoenix and Portland – have been playing all-out since hitting Orlando. Everyone else, not so much.

The Thunder, Nuggets, Clippers and Rockets seemed to be doing whatever they can to draw short-handed Utah in the first round of the players. Denver drew the long straw. So it’s Clippers-Mavs and Thunder-Rockets in the first round.

The Thunder-Clippers regular-season finale Friday night means nothing, which could mean both teams play all their guys. Nothing left to lose for.

Donovan admitted his gameplan did not include benching his best players mid-third quarter. But when he saw Spoelstra give up the ghost, Donovan thought what the heck. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

“They had all their main players off the floor,” Donovan said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity for some of our guys to come off the bench and play.”

In the final 5:09 of the game, the Thunder went exclusively with Muscala, Darius Bazley, Terrance Ferguson, Abdel Nader and Devon Hall. Miami’s quintet: Solomon Hill, Meyers Leonard, Gabe Vincent, Chris Silva and Herro. Only Herro had played in the first half for the Heat.

Donovan said the bubble has turned strange. Teams have treated the final five or six games of their seasons like teams in normal years treat season finales.

“It’s happening a lot,” Donovan said. “It’s happening for a variety of reasons. Every team has had some kind of ailment, everybody’s had challenges, everybody’s had issues.”

Donovan said coaches are trying to balance rhythm and conditioning. Players were out four months during the pandemic. It’s not for certain that all have their legs. And health is a huge concern, like with the Thunder’s Lu Dort, who suffered a knee injury Wednesday night, bringing into question his availability at chasing James Harden in the playoffs.

“Very very unique circumstances,” Donovan called it.

Nader, who had 13 points in 16-1/2 minutes against the Heat, even said the pace and style of play is different in the bubble.

“It’s a new circumstance being here,” Nader said. “The bubble is new for everybody, so even the games are a little bit different, with the pace and style everybody’s playing at.

“I think a lot of teams are playing pass-around. I don’t know if that’s because the playoffs are coming or what, but a lot of ‘em are trying to get a lot in transition. It almost feels like you can load (on defense) so much easier here and contain the ball.”

Does that mean that teams aren’t even going all-out on offense? That’s a new one. But anything is possible in the Orlando bubble, where hopefully the playoffs can restore the promise of those glorious games in late July.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.

Related Photos
Nerlens Noel hugs Mike Muscala, left, of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Muscala hit the game-winning three-point basket against the Miami Heat during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

Nerlens Noel hugs Mike Muscala, left, of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Muscala hit the game-winning three-point basket against the Miami Heat during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-635948731b992818f0c14d808c674d0c.jpg" alt="Photo - Nerlens Noel hugs Mike Muscala, left, of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Muscala hit the game-winning three-point basket against the Miami Heat during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)" title="Nerlens Noel hugs Mike Muscala, left, of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Muscala hit the game-winning three-point basket against the Miami Heat during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)"><figcaption>Nerlens Noel hugs Mike Muscala, left, of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Muscala hit the game-winning three-point basket against the Miami Heat during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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