Fittingly, Chris Paul rocked a Florida A&M Rattlers t-shirt in the wake of Oklahoma City rattling Houston once again in clutch time Monday to tie their Western Conference playoffs series 3-3 by way of a 104-100 win in Game 6.
Paul scored 15 of his team-high 28 points in the fourth quarter and fueled a magical Oklahoma City run in the last three minutes and 35 seconds that saw the Thunder turn a six-point deficit into yet another victory.
What else did we expect from OKC, which entered this contest owning a league-best record of 31-15 in clutch time?
“As far as our team, that’s who we are,” Paul said in his TNT postgame interview. “We’re built for stuff like this. A lot of guys on our team [have] been pushed out, traded or what-not. But we just stick together, and we keep fighting.”
As OKC has forced us to mention in this space before, clutch time is defined by any game separated by five points or fewer in the final five minutes. After embarking on a 10-0 run to counter a Thunder 16-3 run, the Rockets led 94-92 with five minutes remaining as Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan inserted his closing lineup of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallanari, and Steven Adams.
He’s been doing it his whole career. I don’t know if we’ll come out with the formula [in Game 7] to stop it. He would have been out of the league 10 years ago if somebody figured out how to stop him."
Just 10 seconds into clutch time, James Harden nailed a step-back 3-pointer to extend Houston’s advantage to five points, and then followed up by sinking a technical free throw -- courtesy of a Paul outburst -- to put the Rockets up six with 4:19 left.
“I think our guys have confidence and belief,” Donovan said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a carry-over, but I think anytime you’ve done something, and you’ve done it multiple times, there’s a belief inside the group that we had to come back and keep playing and fighting.”
In Game 4, Paul scored eight points in clutch time to help OKC tie the series 2-2 with a 117-114 win. This time, Paul scored eight of the Thunder’s final 12 points down the stretch, starting with back-to-back 3-pointers that tied the score at 98 with 2:57 left.
Paul knocked down the second 3-pointer on a step-back 26-foot jumper over Robert Covington, before patting the Rockets center on the backside as they trotted back up court. Paul also managed to tally a pair of steals over the final 2:33, before hitting a pair of free-throws to give OKC the lead for good.
“He’s a great player,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s been doing it his whole career. I don’t know if we’ll come out with the formula [in Game 7] to stop it. He would have been out of the league 10 years ago if somebody figured out how to stop him. We’ve just got to play better. We’ve just got to be more careful with the ball.”
The Rockets committed four turnovers in clutch time, led by Russell Westbrook, who registered two of his game-high seven turnovers over the last 1:42. Playing in just his second game since Aug. 11, Westbrook turned over the ball on his fifth errant pass of the night with 13.1 seconds left and his team down by two points.
The Rockets committed 22 turnovers after averaging the fewest (11) in the league through the first five games of the playoffs. With 9:07 left to play in the third quarter, Houston had already registered its 12th turnover.
“That’s just my fault, honestly,” said Westbrook, who spent almost the entirety of his nearly four and a half-minute postgame interview staring down at his phone. “Last game, I had zero [turnovers]. Tonight, I had seven. It’s as simple as that.”
Westbrook’s teams own a postseason record of 4-10 when he commits seven turnovers or more.
But Harden took responsibility, too, after scoring a game-high 32 points to go with seven assists.
“A lot of careless turnovers, including myself,” Harden said. “Just too many turnovers, especially in a playoff game, in a close-out game. We just gave them too many opportunities. But I had five [turnovers]. So, we’ve both got to be better with the basketball. Twelve turnovers between the two [of us], if we cut those down to half, we give ourselves a better chance to get shot opportunities.”
With Paul on the floor in Game 6, OKC outscored Houston by 20 points. What’s more, is Paul continued to grow his reputation as a clutch performer. Paul leads the NBA in clutch scoring this season (171 points), including the playoffs, shooting 52.5% from the floor in clutch time and 40.6% from deep.
Paul shot 3 of 6 from distance for the game, and 3 of 3 in the fourth quarter.
“Chris, in those situations, he is really, really an elite 3-point shooter,” Donovan said. “He gets so much credit for being such a savant as a basketball player, and [having] so [much] basketball I.Q., intellect, feel for the game, it is off the charts. But I do think one of the things that really makes him an incredible offensive player besides his mind and his passing is if you can get him the right spacing, he can get to spots on the floor. If he gets to those spots, you feel pretty good about the shots he’s gonna put in.
“He also, a lot of times from my perspective, bypasses a lot of shots. I wish he took more catch-and-shoot 3’s at times. But what makes him an efficient shooter is he takes his shots. As a coach, I respect that. You never want to have a player feel like he’s taking shots out of rhythm. Those 3’s he made, he kind of sized up, got where he wanted to get and created some space and knocked them down. But he is an elite 3-point shooter.”
Clutch performer and “elite 3-point shooter,” just two more titles for Paul, who has been president of the National Basketball Players Association since 2013 and a member of the executive committee since 2009. Paul also played integral roles in the NBA restart back in July, as well as the resumption of the postseason after the players staged a walkout in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisc.
For a man traded in July to Oklahoma City as part of a transaction that sent Westbrook to Houston, you’d think Paul might be playing with some extra incentive to beat his former team.
Paul shrugged off that notion.
Instead, he discussed the reluctance OKC feels towards packing its bags to head back home.
“It’s not just me, it’s our team as a whole,” Paul said. “I think it’s because we do it by committee. We’ve been in those situations all season long, so we just sort of thrive in it. When you are sort of on the ropes like that down 3-2, you’ve got to pack and be ready for just in case you have to leave the next day.
“We’re not ready to go yet. Our team, we have had a memorable season, lots of ups and downs. We’re just going to continue to fight. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
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