CP3 and OKC’s Clutch Gene Comes Through to Send it to 7
During the regular season, Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan’s rotation patterns dictated that Chris Paul re-entered the game, after catching a breath for a handful of possessions, with about four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. It seemed to be the perfect substitution pattern – getting Paul off his feet for a bit to survey the scene from the bench one last time, then sending him on to take care of business in crunch time.
In this wild first round series between the Thunder and Houston Rockets, Donovan extended Paul’s minutes all the way to 40 in Monday night’s do-or-die Game 6 as the Thunder was in a 3-2 series hole. Yet still, as the Thunder found itself on the wrong side of a 6-point deficit with 4:19 to go, there was no fatigue and no panic across the Thunder backcourt or on its bench. OKC’s closer was ready to complete his team’s third come-from-behind win in this series, added to an NBA-record 17 wins after trailing to start the fourth quarter during the regular season.
“Our team man, when it gets to clutch time, fourth quarter, some people are built for it,” Paul said during his postgame interview on TNT, deflecting his own credit to acknowledge the team-wide ability to close games.
“It's not just me. This is our team as a whole. I think it's because we do it by committee,” Paul added, referencing the 33 clutch-time wins for his team this year. “We’ve been in those situations all season long, so we sort of just thrive in it.”
After drawing a foul on his former teammate and longtime friend PJ Tucker of the Rockets, Paul got himself to the middle of the floor and buried a 3-pointer from right at the top of the key to make it 98-95 Rockets with 3:35 to go. Paul has been sensational on dead-center 3-pointers, noting that as a lead ball-handler all his life, that’s the most common angle that he’s used to seeing the court, and also the rim as a point guard.
“We got the floor spaced correctly and we kind of knew where maybe help was going to come from and obviously Chris did a spectacular job coming down the stretch, organizing that,” said Donovan.
The Thunder got a stop on Houston’s next possession, beginning a streak of seven scoreless trips out of eight to close the game for the Rockets, thanks to a stymying defensive effort that included two Paul steals. One swipe came from with Paul in help-side position on a James Harden cross-court pass and the other was a straight-up rip of Russell Westbrook out on the perimeter.
In addition to his patented shot up at the top, Paul is also a master of the sidestep 3-pointer from either the left or right angle. He’s nailed it a few times to beat the buzzer this season, but tonight’s came after a dazzling slew of crossover dribbles that left Rockets forward Robert Covington bewildered. Paul glided to his right as he hoisted a shot over his shoulder, tying the game at 100 just one possession after his previous 3 dropped.
“It’s simply in his DNA. It’s in his blood,” said Thunder center Nerlens Noel the future Hall of Famer. “Every time he’s on the court, as long as his body’s moving, he’s going to be hooping at a high level, with the most competitive nature.”
Westbrook and Dennis Schröder traded baskets, then Paul attacked and drew a foul with 12.4 seconds remaining and, after a Houston timeout, walked to the free throw line. Cool as you like, the steady veteran and career 87 percent free throw shooter stepped to the line and drilled both, completing a 10-2 Thunder run and capping a 15-point fourth quarter as a part of 28-point performance overall.
On Houston’s second to last possession, where it had a chance to take usurp OKC’s 102-100 lead, Paul ducked underneath a screen by Harden to flash right into Westbrook’s vision and cut off his driving angle, forcing the Rockets guard to distractedly let go of a pass that sailed out of bounds. The turnover, Houston’s 22nd of the night during a game in which Paul had zero giveaways, sealed the Thunder’s 104-100 survival-mode victory.
“When you’re as competitive as myself and the guys on our team, it doesn’t matter if it was my mom and my aunties over there (on the other side), we want to hoop and we want to win,” Paul quipped.
The Thunder were masters of the clutch all year, which is defined by possessions when the score is within five points inside of the final five minutes of action. Paul himself had a +25.3 net rating in clutch time during the regular season for the Thunder, one of the top marks among qualifying players, with the Thunder scoring 122.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 96.9 with him on the floor. Paul himself shot 52.2 percent from the field, incredible for a 6-foot guard, including 37.0 percent from three and 92.0 percent from the free throw line with a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
In three clutch games during this first round series against Houston, Paul has been even better. He’s scoring a ridiculous 42.2 points-per-36 minutes in clutch time on 50 percent shooting, 50 percent from three and 100 percent from the free throw line, with 2.3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
“Chris has played masterfully coming down the stretch of games orchestrating things,” said Donovan.
“He's got unbelievable basketball IQ. He’s incredibly smart,” Donovan added. “He's a great competitor. He's got an incredible will to win.”
OKC outscored opponents by over 25 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and has come away victorious in all three games that have been close late in this series against Houston. The three OKC losses have come when the Rockets got hot early and the game got away from the Thunder.
On Wednesday in a win-or-go-home Game 7, the Thunder’s best bet is to keep it close until late, giving their clutch captain the chance to make enough plays to send OKC into Round 2.
“I was in the locker room telling the guys how excited I was about Game 7,” said Paul. “That's the best thing about sports, is Game 7.”