It was a low scoring, grind out game for the Thunder that came down to the wire. Turnovers and untimely fouls kept this game close through all four quarters, but a patented clutch-time 15-point performance by Chris Paul in the fourth gave OKC the boost it needed to outlast the Rockets.
From the outset, it looked to be another slow offensive night for the Thunder and the Rockets. In the first five minutes of the game, there were only a total of 11 points on the board. However, after an arrhythmic Game 5 offensively, there was a clear effort being made by the Thunder perimeter players to attack and put pressure on the rim. Coming out of Game 5, this was the biggest point of emphasis for Coach Donovam: Getting downhill and generating good looks either at the rim for a layup, on the perimeter for a kick out or at the free throw line by drawing a foul.
Lu Dort played a pivotal role in this area by being catalyst offensively to create looks beyond the 3-point line for Danilo Gallinari who only recorded one point in Game 5. The Thunder rookie attacked the lane, drew help-side defenders and kicked the ball out to Gallinari for early, open looks from beyond the arc.
“I thought (Dort) made some really good passes,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “That was I thought really important to kind of get Gallo in the flow offensively. So even though Gallo didn't shoot the ball particularly well to start the game, we found him in broken floor situations and Lu was a big part of that.” This effort paid dividends for Gallinari who suddenly found his stroke midway through the first quarter. After the Rockets rattled off a quick 8-0 run, the Thunder’s sharpshooter answered with a 3-pointer and stifled Houston’s chances at a sizeable early lead. By halftime, he would finish with a team-high 11 points thanks to made buckets from behind the arc, in the midrange and at the rim on paint touches.
The Thunder trailed the Rockets 51 to 48 after a last second 3-pointer by PJ Tucker at the buzzer going into the half. OKC held the Rockets to only 29-percent shooting from behind the arc but allowed 13 points in transition after committing nine first half turnovers, a trend that would continue for both teams throughout the game.
Out of the gates of halftime, the Rockets forced two turnovers on back to back possessions resulting in easy transition opportunities for Russell Westbrook and James Harden who exploded in transition, beating the Thunder’s defense down the floor. This spurt stretched Houston’s lead to nine points. In the following possessions, OKC’s defense administered the Rockets a taste of their own medicine with a pair of steals of steals and buckets to bring the game back to a reasonable four-point margin and force a timeout by Mike D’Antoni.
Gallinari once again put on an offensive clinic in the third quarter with 12 points. However, his overwhelming offensive impact was stymied by immediate answers from Harden on the other end. When the Thunder’s offense dried up midway through the third, it needed a spark to keep the Rocket’s within reach and to not let game get too far out of reach.
That spark was Lu Dort.
After a tough performance in Game 5 without a made 3-pointer, the rookie from Montreal cashed in two back-to-back massive bombs from deep to help the Thunder take the lead going into the fourth quarter. For his teammates, it was exactly what they needed from him – to shoot.
“Lu was amazing,” said Paul. “The thing we’ve been telling Lu ever since (Game 5) is if they back off of you, you shoot it. You shoot it. We’ve got too much confidence in him and his ability and what he can do. He means so much to our team.”
With that incredible jolt of energy, the Thunder entered into the final frame with a 77-to-75 lead and an almost-visible clutch-time confidence.
When the game came down to the wire, it was closing time for the league’s leader in clutch scoring. Chris Paul took charge with 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter. However, it was his last eight points that turned the tides heavily enough for OKC to grab a foothold of solid momentum to pull off the win in the closing minutes.
With the Thunder trailing 98-92, the Thunder’s 10-time All-Star had the ball in his hands with less than four minutes remaining in the game – clutch time. Jeff Green, who had the assignment to guard Paul the entire fourth quarter, checked Paul on the perimeter. It was too much daylight for the clutch-time maestro who stepped easily into a straight away 3-pointer and drained it.
On the ensuing possession, it was Robert Covington who matched up with Paul. This time, CP3 executed a textbook step-back 3-pointer with three minutes left to go in the fourth and bring it to a tied ball game.
“He is a phenomenal shooter, and especially in the mid-range when he gets to the elbows,” said Coach Donovan. “I do think one of the things that really makes him an incredibly unbelievable offensive player besides his mind and his passing is if you can get him the right spacing, he can get the spots on the floor and it gets to those spots, you feel pretty good about the shots he's gonna put in.”
After tying the game, there were still two and a half minutes left to play in the game. This is where the Thunder’s defense illustrated elite-level discipline. Of the Rocket’s final eight possessions of the game, the Thunder forced seven stops – three of which were turnovers. Couple the strong defensive effort by the Thunder with a perfect four-for-four performance from the free throw line in the final minute by Paul and Gallinari and the Thunder walked away victors in this 48-minute battle.
“We all have a common goal and that's to win the game,” said Paul. “We just try to compete and fight as hard as we can and we try to take quarter by quarter, minute by minute.”
“Our defense kind of carried us and we had some, some timely stops and create some family turnovers which really enabled us to kind of get out in transition and gain a few extra possessions,” said Donovan.
Play of the Game
As the clock wound down in the first half of the game, Danilo Gallinari’s offensive rhythm reached a steady hum. The 6-foot-10 Italian power forward dazzled in his first of two consecutive jumpers.
Driving on Danuel House Jr. in the middle of the lane, Gallinari stopped on a dime and faked as though he was going to spin back to the middle. Instead he faced back up to the basket and elevated at the free throw line to release an effortless, picturesque mid-range jumper over Covington to give the Thunder a two-point lead.
For Gallinari, the formula for his 25-point performance was fairly simple: “Just being aggressive, reading the defense and keep doing the stuff that I’ve been doing,” said Gallinari in his postgame walk-off interview with Nick Gallo on FOX Sports Oklahoma.
Stat of the Night5
For the first time this postseason, five Thunder players scored in double-figures. Paul (28), Gallinari (25), Dort (13), Schröder (12) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10) all chipped in valuable buckets at various points in the game to keep the Thunder’s offense afloat amid the 32-point performance of James Harden and the downpour of 3-pointers from the Rocket’s supporting cast.
“It means a lot. We’ve been having a lot of different guys step up,” said Paul. “We just got one of those teams where it’s by committee. On any different night, it could be a different guy.”
Quotes of the Night
“When you’re as competitive as myself and the guys on our team, it don't matter if it was my mom and my auntie's over there, we want to hoop and we want to win.” –Chris Paul “Just keep playing, keeping our heads down and keep playing great defense with great intensity. Focusing on the game plan and executing the game plan for 48 minutes. That’s the key to winning games.”
After stretching the series to one more, winner-take-all game, the Thunder and the Rockets will face off in Game 7 on Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT. Tune in to the broadcast on FOX Sports Oklahoma or listen on the radio on WWLS 98.1 FM The Sports Animal.