Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan gathered the team at intermission in the locker room with the score tied at 60 to lay out the facts.
He explained how the Thunder had surrendered eight 3-pointers in the first quarter, before limiting the Houston Rockets in the second quarter to only one bucket from long range.
Thunder point guard Chris Paul figured, “we were trending in the right direction.”
“Then they came out [in the third quarter],” Paul said.
“Wham, wham, wham.”
Add five more whams for a more accurate depiction of the carnage wrought by the Rockets on Monday in knocking down eight consecutive 3-pointers from the start of the second half to the 2:54 mark of the third quarter in seizing a 13-point lead.
Somehow Oklahoma City survived it to even this Western Conference playoff series at 2-2 by way of a 117-114 victory. Credit the Thunder for carrying the same clutch gene into the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort that they displayed throughout the regular season.
“I think a lot of these guys understand now that there’s so many possessions in an NBA game, and there’s so much time, and people are playing so much faster that leads that years ago maybe seemed like a really difficult hill to climb, I think are certainly attainable to get back in a game,” Donovan said. “Certainly, you never want to be down by 13 points. But if you look at the way the game started, we kind of jumped on them. They came right back. ... I mentioned emotional toughness. That’s where you have to have it. They knocked down some shots, and they kind of built a lead.
"Our composure, and the way we stuck together, the way we encouraged each other, I thought that was really important. When you’re playing against good teams, adversity is gonna come. It’s all how you handle it collectively as a group.”
When you’re playing against good teams, adversity is gonna come. It’s all how you handle it collectively as a group."
By now, nobody should be surprised by what transpired in Game 4. Remember, in Game 3 on Saturday, Oklahoma City flexed its three-guard lineup of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder to best the Rockets 119-107 in overtime.
The difference in this one is Oklahoma City didn’t need an extra quarter to complete the job.
After combining for 78 points in Game 3, the Thunder trio of guards came together for 74 to unseat the Rockets again, this time led by Schroder’s game-high 30 points and Paul’s contribution of 26, followed by Gilgeous-Alexander, who chipped in 18 points.
“We can’t slow down,” Schroder said. “We’ve got to play fast, get stops on defense, get the rebound and just go. I think we’ve got three great point guards in this league who can make decisions, who can create for each other and who can make their teammates better. We’ve got to use that as our advantage. We’ve been doing that all season.”
After starting off the third quarter 8-for-8 from 3-point range, the Rockets would cool considerably to finish the quarter at 9-for-15 beyond the arc.
Oklahoma City played a major role in that, as Paul scored 14 in the third quarter to lead a 12-0 Thunder run over the last 2:54 of the frame, punctuated by a Schroder 31-footer off a Paul assist that pulled them within one point for the start of the fourth.
That run served as a small piece of a larger 23-7 run that helped OKC take a 94-93 lead just 10 seconds into the fourth quarter on a Schroder driving layup.
“We just relaxed,” said James Harden, who scored a game-high 32 points on 11-of-25 shooting. “They’re quick guards. Obviously, they’re really good at getting to the paint. It’s just in that third quarter, they gained confidence, and they went on a run. We just never really recovered from that. We still had opportunities in that fourth quarter, of course. We strayed away from [team principles] on both ends of the ball. So, if we don’t score the basketball, then we don’t get back defensively. They score, [and] they go on their run. Teams are going to make runs, but it’s the way they made their run. We weren’t getting our shots that we wanted, offensively. Defensively, we weren’t sticking to our principles. So, it was a disaster on both ends.”
Houston owns the moniker of “Clutch City” from its first NBA title back in 1994. But in this playoff series, Oklahoma City embodies it.
The Thunder have done that all season, and Monday’s win served simply as a continuance.
Clutch time is defined as any game separated by five points or fewer in the last five minutes of the contest. So, when the clock ticked down to 5:00 in the fourth quarter on Monday, Oklahoma City found itself in familiar territory, leading by one point (103-102).
“Both teams had a chance to win,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, after his team broke its own postseason record for 3-point attempts in a playoff game (58). “We just didn’t do it. We didn’t get as many stops as we should’ve; just so many breakdowns defensively this time. Last time, it was the offense. This time, it was a little bit of both.”
Mostly, it was Oklahoma City’s penchant for clutch play.
The Thunder entered the contest with a league-best record of 30-15 in clutch time, and Paul led the NBA in clutch-time scoring with 150 points. After Game 4, he's got 21 more of those in the 2020 playoffs.
“He was great,” Donovan said. “With the way they’re playing defense and the way we’re trying to space the floor, I think he’s got a really good comfort level of where his spots are gonna be. With a guy like him on the floor, with whomever it is, whether it’s veteran guys or young guys, he has a way of kind of stopping runs and finding ways to generate good shots. When he’s using his mind like that, he understands, ‘OK, there’s some momentum going here.’ He really changed it.”
After falling behind 2-0 earlier in this series, Oklahoma City never showed any real concern after the losses. The club kept saying it would “figure it out.”
It appears the Thunder have accomplished that goal by focusing on floor spacing and attacking downhill against Houston’s switching defense. Donovan surmised that “if you can space it correctly, even if you don’t get to the rim, you can get some kick-out shots.”
Now, it’s time for the Rockets to make adjustments.
Rockets point guard Russell Westbrook hasn’t played in a game since Aug. 11, due to a strained right quadriceps muscle, and we’re all aware that the best way for a player to round himself into proper conditioning is to actually play live games. Westbrook provided a glimpse of encouragement before Game 4 by taking part in a strenuous workout on the court.
Still, he’s missed six consecutive games, and eight of the team’s last nine overall dating back to the NBA restart.
Meanwhile, Harden, who already has a reputation for running out of gas in the postseason, has logged 34 minutes or more in every game this series, including a series-high 42:49 in Game 4.
The Rockets are now 4-6 this season in games decided by three points or fewer, while OKC is 9-6 in those scenarios.
Paul chuckled at first thinking back to Houston’s third-quarter eruption from deep, before recognizing the significance of OKC’s moxie in evening up the series 2-2.
“That was crazy to tell you the truth,” Paul said. “I think our team all season has dealt with adversity really, really [well]. We were just trying to keep playing, keep fighting, and stayed in the game.We just knew we had to take our shots when they were there. They were sort of just giving us the open 3s [over the first two games]. And each game was different. We have some dynamic guards. I’m probably not dynamic. But Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] and Dennis [Schroder] are. So, we know that if we can give those guys space, they can get downhill.”
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