Poise Through Chaos Turns 5-Point Deficit into Runaway Victory
After two consecutive games where the Houston Rockets repeatedly rained in corner 3-pointers, nobody would have blamed the Thunder for being demoralized when another one dropped with 59.7 seconds left in regulation of Saturday night’s desperation Game 3.
The shot came from the hand of PJ Tucker, Houston’s defensive ace, corner-3 specialist and longtime friend of the Thunder’s Chris Paul. Over the ensuing 59 seconds of game action Paul returned the favor by scoring or assisting on all seven of the Thunder’s points to force overtime, then knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the extra period to deliver OKC a crucial 119-107 win, giving his team a chance to tie this series at 2-2 in Game 4 on Monday.
“We know how tough it is to come back down 3-0,” said Paul. “So we wanted to fight tonight, so that’s what we did.”
Tucker’s shot gave the Rockets a 102-97 lead with less than 60 seconds to go, putting an immense amount of game-and-series pressure on the Thunder. Backs against the wall, down five and with a two-game series deficit, no problem.
The Thunder was at the very top of the list when it came to clutch time this season, and it was Paul who answered immediately for the Thunder. Less than seven seconds after Tucker’s bucket, Paul was at the other end of the floor, scooping in a layup. That made it a one-possession game with an NBA eternity to go. Paul then locked onto Houston’s James Harden on the ensuing defensive possession, forcing the NBA’s leading scorer to give up the ball into the corner to Danuel House, a role player who doesn’t often have the ball in his hands for clutch moments.
Thunder guard Dennis Schröder was practically inside the red and white stitching of House’s jersey as he tried to tip-toe in the corner. House chucked up a prayer of a 3-pointer that actually went in but not before a whistle blew, signaling that House had stepped on the line.
The turnover allowed Paul to operate on a drive again, targeting Harden – who had five fouls – and forcing help over off of Steven Adams, who finished with a layup to cut Houston’s lead to just 102-101 with 24.4 seconds to go.
Then, chaos ensued. That’s exactly where the Rockets like to live – with mismatches all over the floor, the ball pushed speedily in transition, no play-calls, just isolation and attempts to draw fouls. The maelstrom that occurred on this night however, didn’t even cause the scoreboard to move and it happened within the space of about 15 feet on the floor.
As the Rockets tried to inbound the ball, Paul guarded Harden chest to chest, with his arms spread wide but elbows deftly tucked in to stay attached to his mark. Harden, who averages over 11 free throw attempts per game, is no stranger to manufacturing fouls and he did in this instance, hooking his arm up under Paul’s then falling straight to the ground before the pass was inbounded. The result was a whistle, an official review and a ruling that it was an “away-from-the-play” foul, resulting in one free throw from Harden AND possession of the ball, back at the original inbound spot.
Harden hit the free throw, but when Tucker tried to pass the ball in from the baseline to Rockets guard Eric Gordon, the throw went right over his teammates’ head. Gordon and Schröder’s feet had gotten tangled and both fell to the floor, but this time there was no whistle. Tucker and Adams stumbled toward the ball, Adams fell over yet through all that tumbling humanity, the ball was never once touched before it trickled out of bounds.
“We try to think next play and next stay what we can do next play get a stop or get a good look at the basket,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Honestly, just stay focused and don't worry about the officials or what’s going on outside of us on the floor.”
With 24.4 seconds remaining still, the Thunder had the ball, down by two. While the referees reviewed the out of bounds ruling, Donovan used the time to draw up a play. Instead of lobbying the referees or worrying about the call, the Thunder was strategizing. The ball got to Paul in the middle of the floor, with Harden playing soft defense and shading Paul slightly to his left. The Thunder’s 10-time All-Star point guard, who ranks 7th in NBA in history in assists, tossed his biggest one of the season.
Paul drove down past the left elbow, drawing both House and Houston’s Jeff Green as helpside defenders off of the weakside corner. With two hands, the 35-year-old Paul fired the ball into the right corner while in mid-air, right into the shooting pocket of his young protégé, 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“It felt good as soon as it left my hands. Hats off to Chris, obviously, for a great pass,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “I just wanted to be ready to shoot with confidence.”
The duo of CP3 and SGA have been as tight as can be this season, even moreso than one would expect of a veteran starting point guard and a youngster who shared not just the floor but touches and lead-guard duties for a whole year. Gilgeous-Alexander caught the ball in rhythm and buried the biggest shot of his NBA career, ripping the net with a 3 to give the Thunder the lead with 14.3 seconds to go.
“We talked about in the huddle,” said Paul. “Once I got by, the pass was easy. Shai had the hard part of knocking down the shot. That was a big shot for us.”
We know that Chris is going to do the right decision and find the right guy,” said Schröder. “After (Shai) made it, I was like ‘you don’t even got to say nothing’. I know what (Shai is) about. He’s been working so hard and it’s showing.”
There was still work to be done however, and another setback for the Thunder to overcome with the poise it showed all year when it had 17 wins after trailing to start the fourth quarter, the most in the NBA. After tangled feet again caused a foul call, this time on Thunder center Nerlens Noel, Houston’s House hit one free throw to send this one into overtime.
That’s when Lu Dort re-asserted himself after having done an incredible job of hampering Harden whenever he was on him. Though Houston’s leading scorer notched 38 points, just above his season average of 34, it took him 27 field goal attempts and a 3-of-13 mark from 3-point range. Much of that had to do with Dort’s unwillingness to let himself get screened and ability to both move his feet and square up his wide chest to Harden on any driving attempt.
“Lu is trying to guard arguably one of the best offensive players to play the game,” said Paul.
Dort caught a piece of Harden’s 10-foot runner attempt on overtime’s first possession, then made a play that changed the game completely on the ensuing offensive possession
After missing a 3-pointer, the Thunder’s Danilo Gallinari picked up the offensive rebound and tried to go right back up with a layup. The ball caromed off the rim and out toward the right wing, right in front of where Dort had just shot. The ball escaped from the fray down low and Dort was the first man to the ball, grabbing it and pump-faking as Harden leaped to try to block his put-back layup attempt.
“Credit to Lu Dort on the defensive end. He’s amazing,” said Schröder. “Everybody was shifting, everybody was active in the help-side. That was the key to the game and overtime.”
Dort stayed on the floor then rose up and got bumped by Harden on his way back down to the floor. It was Harden’s sixth foul, sending him to the bench for good with 4:07 remaining in overtime. After hitting one free throw, Dort gave the Thunder a 105-104 lead, sparking a 12-0 OKC run to start the extra frame as it steamrolled a demoralized and exhausted Rockets club.
Paul’s 3-pointers, one from the top of the key off a pass from Gilgeous-Alexander, then another from 29-feet on the right wing as the shot clock expired, cued the Thunder’s celebration of a hard-earned playoff victory.
The win counts for just one, but it’s a big one. It prevented a dreaded 3-0 hole and opens the door for a more realistic series comeback. OKC just needs three more of those gut-check wins to do the trick.
“We know that if you put it the right way and play to our identity, anything is possible,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We've proven that so many times this year, that’s just our mentality now. It’s part of our nature.”
Thunder Dominates in Overtime to Take Game 3.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) August 23, 2020
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