‘We Stick Together and Keep Fighting’, Thunder Gears Up For Pivotal Series Finale
Date: Sept. 2, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 8 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Series: Tied 3-3
Walking back into the locker room on Monday, the Thunder’s 10-time All-Star Chris Paul clapped his hands and yelled out to no one in particular, “We just gave ourselves a chance! Game 7, anything can happen!”
With backs against the wall, and bags packed going into a Game 6 with the season on the line, the Thunder dug in its heels and outlasted the Rockets to stretch the series to one final game. The game was low-scoring and turnover heavy for both teams which made consistent offensive rhythm hard to come by. This required a collective effort to outlast the Rockets when the game came down to the wire.
“When you are sort of on the ropes like that, down 3-2 you got to pack and be ready for just in case you have to leave the next day,” said Paul explained postgame on Monday. “We're not ready to go yet. Our team, we’ve had a memorable season, a lot of ups and downs and all that and we just continue to fight. We wouldn't have it any other way.”
In the final four minutes of the game, the Thunder outscored the Rockets 12-2 in large part thanks to Paul who scored eight of those final 12 points. Two massive 3-pointers, a critical steal and a pair of free throws helped to cap off yet another clutch-time win to add to the NBA’s leader in clutch scoring’s docket.
Although it was Paul who sealed the deal in the final minutes of the game, it was his teammates who kept the offense afloat throughout the first three quarters. For the first time this postseason, five Thunder players finished in double-digit scoring. In the first two quarters, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari who combined for 21 points going into the half. After finishing with a total of 5 points in Game 5, the two got going early thanks to aggressive drives to the rim and great offensive spacing.
When the Thunder’s offense ran dry in spurts throughout the game, it was the strong efforts of the Thunder rookies who helped maintain a steady drip of points when the Thunder needed it most. In the second quarter, it was Darius Bazley who went to the free throw line on nearly three consecutive occasions to give the Thunder its first trips to the free throw line in the game.
In the second half, the Thunder searched for some much-needed life after two consecutive plays with turnovers. Dort responded with eight straight points including back-to-back 3-pointers to regain the lead with less than a minute remaining in the third.
“Darius and Lu are rookies. They're going through this for the first time,” said Thunder head Coach Billy Donovan. “They're getting a chance to learn quite a bit these situations and I think these situations are only going to help them.”
Although Wednesday’s game marks the fourth Game 7 in Thunder playoff history, and Chris Paul is the only player on the roster with more than two Game 7 experiences, Coach Donovan approached it with a strong level of familiarity.
“I think our Game 7 was yesterday too,” said Coach Donovan on Tuesday. “Game 7 always comes down to an elimination game, and we were an elimination game yesterday. It was great to see the way our guys competed. We're going to need to compete like that again.”
“I think the way you approach it is just like another playoff game,” said Danilo Gallinari. “I think we need to take all of the positive stuff that we did in the last game and especially the approach and the attention to detail that we had for 48 minutes.”
Thunder Talk – Gearing Up for Game 7
Houston, who makes its living at the rim and behind the 3-point line, looked out of sync offensively throughout the game. Throughout this series, the Rockets averaged 18 3-pointers per game on 51 attempts while shooting 39-percent. In Game 6, the Thunder held the Rockets to only 15-of-44 from deep (34.1 percent).
A lackluster shooting night coupled with 22 turnovers was indicative of the strong defensive performance by the Thunder. Houston’s spread-out, one-on-one offensive style requires its opposers to execute multiple efforts on the defensive end in order to contest shots. Quick rotations to protect the rim while also having the urgency to fly out to shooters and contest has been key for the Thunder in limiting Houston in their clean looks from beyond the arc.
“You’ve got to rotate as best as you can, and you have to cover for each other,” said Coach Donovan. “You’ve got to deal with the runs. You can make those kind of efforts and the ball can still go in the basket, but you’ve got to try to contest as best as you can. I thought our effort to do those things last night was great.”
While the Thunder’s defense executed at a high level in limiting looks in the half-court, where the Rockets looked to take advantage was in transition. In Game 6, Houston put up 20 fast break points compared to the Thunder’s five. When facing lightning quick guards like Russell Westbrook who zooms down the floor on missed shots and turnovers, the Thunder will look to limit their opportunities by taking care of the ball and taking quality shots on offense.
When it comes to individual player Game 7 experiences, the Rockets have a combined 20 as a group while the Thunder have 11. There’s an interesting balance within the Thunder roster and a mix of veteran and young players. Chris Paul has 6 experiences with Game 7’s in his career while the next closest player on the Thunder roster is Steven Adams who has 2.
Meanwhile the Rockets have 10 players on their roster who have anywhere from one to three Game 7 experiences. Houston may have a wider spread of players with such experience, but the Thunder have its leader in Chris Paul who tied for sixth among active players in Game 7 appearances and 11th in points (20.8). Be on the lookout for how Paul leads his young team in this pivotal game against the more experienced Rockets.
“I always say with experience, you have to start somewhere,” explained Coach Donovan. “If you can really be disciplined in the areas of control as a young player, those experiences are only going to make you better.”
Stat to Watch
Turnovers – A common theme throughout this first-round series has been the role of turnovers in determining each team’s offensive rhythm and opponent scoring. In Game 6, Houston committed a series-high 22 turnovers and OKC recorded 19. The result was a combined 43 points off of turnovers between the two teams off of fast break and broke floor situations generated by the miscue.
Going into Game 7, it will be the team who can take care of the ball and in turn, limit open floor opportunities for their opponent who will have the clear advantage.
“I think that probably both teams are looking at the same thing as it relates to that,” said Coach Donovan, referencing the high mark in turnovers for both squads on Monday.
“So we've got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball and that's going to be certainly a focus for us because when you have the familiarity that we have with each other going into a Game 7, sometimes turnovers steals those kind of things generate easy baskets and sometimes in a series like this where there's so much familiarity that happens every series, it's hard to generate or create some easy baskets, and generally broken floor situations create that. The best way to create broken floor situations is long rebounds and turnovers.”
The Thunder has a long-standing record of games going down to the wire. So far this season, including the postseason, the Thunder have competed in 45 clutch games and walked away victorious in 33 of those matchups which both rank as the most in the league. The Thunder also have three players sitting in the Top 20 in total clutch points: Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“This is who we are. We’re built for stuff like this,” said Paul in his walk off interview with TNT. “We just stick together and we keep fighting.”
Watch: Game Day Preview