A LOT of teams gave up big leads Wednesday night.
The Grizzlies had a 15-point lead over the Bucks in the third quarter, but needed a Mike Conley turnaround jumper and two foul shots with 26 seconds left to give them a three-point win over Milwaukee. The 76ers were leading the Magic 92-76 in the fourth quarter before the Magic scored 21 consecutive points and held the 76ers scoreless for almost four minutes to win. The best game of the night was probably the Detroit Pistons coming back from a 19-point deficit to beat the Raptors on a Reggie Bullock winner at the buzzer.
Thanks to the three-point revolution, spacing, and the quicker pace of today’s NBA game — which has created more possessions, more points, and more opportunities to cut down big leads — night like Wednesday are much more common. Last season, comebacks from 15-points-or-more deficits occurred in 11 percent of NBA games played, as opposed to just six percent in the prior 15 seasons combined.
The Timberwolves’ win over the Pelicans was my favorite game. It was a perfect display of the fun and tension that exists in games when a team goes up by a lot and has to fight off an opponent’s resurgence. There’s such a performance to it.
The Wolves’ biggest lead of the game was 52-31 early in the second quarter. The Pelicans clawed back to get that lead down to 13 at halftime. By the fourth quarter, they pulled within four, and then took their first lead of the game late in regulation, 96-94, on a Jrue Holiday jumper to cap a 15-2 run.
When a team gives up a big lead like the Wolves did, certain things happen in a game. Players in danger of embarrassment begin showing their frustration after failed possessions. Rather than running back after a teammate loses the ball or takes a bad shot, they throw up their hands and turn their head in disgust, or sigh, put their heads down, and jog reluctantly back on defense.
And if the lead is relinquished at the end of a big run, as it was by the Wolves, there’s always a camera shot of a stunned player on the bench. The player is usually sitting with their chin resting on their hand, staring at nothing. Sometimes there’s a player sitting with his hands between his legs, shaking his head. Or if the lead slips away in truly disastrous fashion, we get to see the angry player who walks back to the bench and tosses his towel while yelling at his teammates and coaches. When the frustration reaches that point, it often spells doom for the team that led.
What I liked about the Wolves, was that their anxiety was apparent, but so was the determination to win. Pride overrides anger at the collapse. That’s when both teams begin trying to make a momentum-changing or momentum-crushing plays — the one play that will win them the game by annihilating their opponent’s confidence.
At 98-96 in favor of the Wolves, the Pelicans forced Jeff Teague into a shot clock violation, which frustrated his teammates. While the Wolves were sagging their heads about their failed possession, Anthony Davis, who had been having a rough night, flew in for a thunderous dunk at the other end. He could have surely crushed the Wolves at that point.
But Davis missed his dunk, and Karl-Anthony Towns immediately got an and-1 on the Wolves’ next possession. The play catapulted the Wolves to a 7-0 run.
Towns’ and-1 wasn’t The Play, though. New Orleans kept the game close enough that there was still hope they could win approaching the final two minutes. That is, until the true climax, The Play, finally happened. And rather than one moment, The Play was a sequence of events.
Down 102-98, Davis tried to go up for a layup in the post. Towns, who had risen to the challenge of guarding and attacking Davis all night, blocked his fellow former Kentucky Wildcat. It was such a critical and exciting block that Towns roared and flexed to the crowd as his teammates ran down the court.
Wiggins brought the ball down, and passed it. And with his defender following the ball, Wiggins cut to the basket, got the ball back, and dunked on Nikola Mirotić. A foul was called on Mirotić, but referees went to review the play because Wiggins had accidentally kicked Mirotić while rising in the air. Mirotić’s initial foul was upheld, and Wiggins shot and made his free throw.
After that, the game devolved into bad shots and bad decisions, and only a pretense of basketball while everyone waited for the clock to run out. The Pelicans didn’t even attempt to foul at the end.
There are two heroic narratives at work in games like Pelicans-Wolves. For the Wolves, it’s a eucatastrophe, in which they survived what looked like sure doom and so can feel relieved despite how much they faltered. They turned what would ordinarily be a good win into a grand escape. The Pelicans get the Hope Spot treatment of facing clear defeat, finding a glimmer of hope — the heroic second wind — and then still failing in the end.
Both teams leave the game with a sense of belief — one for overcoming great odds, and the other for surviving the resurgence and beating a more powerful team. And in between those stories, was a performance of back-and-forth, of fight versus pride, that made for ridiculously good entertainment.
And thankfully, there will be more nights like Wednesday to come.