"Make the smart play" can often be lazily translated into “make the safe play.” In the NBA, not taking chances avoids embarrassment but eschews bravery. The Thunder organization aims to never opt for the self-conscious side of that trade-off. Aggressiveness and conviction, those are the prized qualities in decision-making.
With 13.8 seconds left on the road, the Thunder faced a choice. After a pair of missed free throws and a missed runner in the lane on the last of about a dozen emotionally-demoralizing sequences in the game, the Thunder found itself down by one point to the Boston Celtics. One of the NBA’s best and most complete squads had the Thunder on the ropes and had the ball too.
Conventional wisdom has made it clear. In this situation, you foul as soon as the ball is inbounded. Extend the game. Give yourself a chance to get lucky later.
But the Thunder has savvy, moxie, grit. Togetherness and self-belief. As the Celtics in-bounded the ball to Kemba Walker, a four-time All-Star point guard, Chris Paul dug into a defensive stance, bending his 34-year-old knees and resisting Walker’s inclination to get back to the middle of the floor. He walled him off, forcing Walker deeper into the backcourt. He didn’t foul. That would have been the safe move.
Dennis Schröder was guarding in the inbounds pass, but really his eyes were on Walker. Like an eagle waiting for the slightest flash of movement down below, Schröder waited until Walker turned his back to protect the ball from Paul. In that moment, Walker couldn’t see either of the Thunder’s point guards.
“I just tried to cut Kemba off. The presence of mind of Dennis, who I trust wholeheartedly, he knew,” said Paul.
Springing into action, Schröder purposefully but carefully darted towards Walker, staying low enough to trap. No sooner had the German lightning bolt arrived on the scene did the Thunder duo blow up Walker’s handle.
“We just wanted to get one trap,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “Figured that would be good enough.”
The loose ball bounced just out of Walker’s reach and right into a dribble for Schröder, who scooped the ball up off the glass and into the basket with 8.5 seconds remaining, giving the Thunder a shocking 105-104 lead.
“Chris Paul kind of set it up and Dennis just went for the kill,” said Thunder forward Abdel Nader, who had a career-high 4 blocks in the game. “It takes a leader like Chris to know exactly what to do in that situation, and a guy like Dennis to follow up.”
In the NBA though, 8.5 seconds is an eternity, especially when a team can advance the ball into the frontcourt. Another decision needed to be made during Boston’s timeout. It was a discussion point that needed addressing before the game even began, but the concern elevated to a higher level in crunch time.
Without the services of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s 6-foot-6 guard, or Darius Bazley, a 6-foot-9 power forward, the Thunder was giving up a lot of height to Celtics forward Jayson Tatum throughout the evening. During the game, rookie two-way guard Lu Dort and third-year guard Terrance Ferguson did a masterful job at not giving Tatum anything easy. They absorbed his post ups, chased him around screens and got quick hands up into his face to contest his jump shots. The result was an inefficient 8-for-21 shooting night up to that point.
Still, everyone inside TD Garden, including the Thunder, knew that the ball was going to Tatum, the 21-year-old All-Star, on the Celtics’ final possession. In the Thunder huddle throughout the year there’s been banter about who gets the defensive assignment against the opposing team’s best player. Ferguson and now Dort have shown they can get the job done. Schröder always wants it. Same with Paul, who tonight asked Donovan in the huddle for the task.
“He always does that,” Schröder said with a wry smile, pretending to be annoyed. “He’s 34 years old, still looking to compete. That’s credit to him.”
“Don’t get it twisted, I do it too. I told him, ‘are you sure, you don’t want me to get him?’ Schröder laughed. “It’s great to have that on the team.”
Paul’s voice carried the loudest this night, as Donovan gave him Tatum on the final possession. Understandable for that to be the case with a 10-time All-Star and 7-time All-Defensive First Team performer making the request. The safe move would have been using someone taller. The smart move was going with Paul.
“I love that challenge,” said Paul. “If he was going to win it, it was going to be on me.”
As the Celtics inbounded the ball, Tatum started on the left block, then re-located over to the right block, ready to sit down in the post with Paul on his hip. The Thunder point guard was giving up about 8 inches in height to the Celtics forward, but defense is played with feet and thighs and abs and chests, not necessarily with long legs. Paul got up under Tatum, guiding him to make the catch not from 10 feet out where he started, but 20 feet away from the rim. In the NBA, that extra yardage makes a massive difference, but there was still work to be done.
“I just wanted to make it tough on him,” said Paul. “At this point in my career, I’d rather guard a guy in the post than a guy out on the perimeter. You take me to the post, I’m happy.”
Tatum took two back-down dribbles but only moved about two feet closer to the bucket with Paul standing him up and challenging the dribble. Thanks to a Paul stab at the ball, the 6-foot-8 forward had to hesitate instead of continuing his momentum towards the rim. As Tatum gathered the ball, Paul swiped with the right hand in front as a distraction. As both players elevated as a fading 18-foot jump shot went up, Paul managed to sneak his left hand up into Tatum’s sight-line, obscuring at least some portion of the hoop.
The shot caromed short off the rim. In the scramble, an array of Thunder hands knocked the ball around and the red light around the backboard went off and the final horn blared, and the clock hit zero.
And there stood Paul. In the same spot 18 feet from the basket where he had forced Tatum’s missed shot, pointing at the ground, at his turf. He might not be able to guard a guy like Tatum for 36 minutes, but for 8.5 seconds, when the game is on the line, that’s Paul’s spot.
A horde of sunset Thunder jerseys rushed over to their leader, with chest bumps and high-fives and the true appreciation teammates can only feel when they know that their team not only won the physical battle, but the mental one too.
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