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In OKC, Savvy Vets Finally Link Up

In OKC, Savvy Vets Finally Link Up Despite making their marks on multiple NBA franchises and missing each other on one NBA team by just eight days, basketball lifers Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari are suited up in the same uniform for the first time, playing off of one another’s basketball IQ and outsmarting opponents for the Thunder.

Nick Gallo

With less than three minutes left in a tight overtime game at home against the Philadelphia 76ers, momentum was creeping onto the Thunder’s side. Chris Paul flowed into the frontcourt, eyes up and ready to shoot. Imperceptible to the 18,203 murmuring fans in the crowd was a quick word thrown Paul’s direction, from behind and to the point guard’s right. Chancing a quick glance like a driver checking his side view mirror, Paul gave up his good 3-point attempt for an even better one – a catch-and-shoot triple from the 6-foot-10 Italian sharpshooter on his flank. Danilo Gallinari buried the 3-pointer, sinking with it the 76ers’ chances at a road win, personified by a frantic timeout called by Philadelphia’s bench. Gallinari trotted into the backcourt after the shot with his arms spread wide, soaking in the adoring cheers when Paul circled back and gave him a huge chest bump. “One of the talents that I do have is to get somebody an open shot. Especially if it’s a big (man) shooting,” Paul said. “He’s one of my favorite teammates ever and we’ve only been together a few weeks,” Paul added of Gallinari in his postgame interview on Fox Sports Oklahoma.

A FEEL FOR THE GAME

Paul notably began his NBA career in Oklahoma City as a part of the New Orleans Hornets. The squad found temporary refuge 700 miles to the northwest after Hurricane Katrina devastated Paul’s initial professional port of call. That was back in 2005, the same year the 20-year-old Paul earned 124 out of 125 first-place votes for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. The NBA’s active leader in both assists and steals has remained in the Western Conference his whole career, playing in New Orleans until 2011 and then for the Los Angeles Clippers from 2011-17. He then stopped in with the Houston Rockets for two seasons prior to joining the Thunder in the trade for Russell Westbrook this past August.

While Paul was making his rookie debut in Oklahoma City, Gallinari was 17 years old, playing for a now-defunct basketball club near his home called Nuova Pallacanestro Pavia, which translates literally into “Pavia’s New Basketball Club.” The small città 22 miles south of Milan sits on an offshoot of the famous River Po and is a 35-minute drive from Gallinari’s hometown of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano.

NBA scouts started taking notice of Gallinari at his next gig, Olimpia Milano, the same team that his father Vittorio Gallinari played for professionally. In his final year with the club, Danilo won the Italian League MVP award at age 19 and averaged 17.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. He was strong in his first ever opportunity to compete in EuroLeague play, where he won the Rising Star Award. As a young NBA executive, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti was one of the people who trekked to northern Italy to watch Gallinari play as a part of draft preparation. While in Milan, Presti picked up some impressive, thick books about Italy to bring back to impress his then-girlfriend, and now wife, Shannon.

Unlike the books, Presti didn’t pick up Gallinari in the draft. Instead, with the fourth overall selection in 2008, Presti opted for an unheralded, feisty guard from UCLA named Russell Westbrook. Two picks later, the much-hyped Italian prodigy Gallinari was snagged by the New York Knicks. He played there through 2011, making his move to the Western Conference for good the same year Paul arrived in Los Angeles. Gallinari was a part of the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York and became a mainstay with the Denver Nuggets for the next six seasons, despite missing the entire 2013-14 season due to an ACL tear.

Still, during his time in Denver, Gallinari was a consistently sharp 3-point shooter, a well-rounded scoring threat and a productive scorer. For his career, he’s averaged 16.2 points on 38.1 percent shooting from behind the arc, and 87.2 percent from the free-throw line. His efficiency has spiked over the past two seasons to unprecedented levels: he was one of just three players in 2018-19 to shoot 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the line. This season with the Thunder he's 43.9 percent from the field, 40.9 percent from three and 88.6 percent from the charity stripe, nearly identical figures despite having to adjust to a totally new squad. When the NBA season came to a halt, Danilo had a streak going of 44-straight games with at least one made three-pointer, and in 51 of the 55 games he played he made at least two threes.

On June 28, 2017, Paul, a nine-time All-Star, including five times with the Clippers, was traded from Los Angeles to Houston. Eight days later, on July 6, Gallinari and the Clippers completed a sign-and-trade to end his tenure with Denver. Paul and Gallinari were ships passing in the night, just barely missing one another in Los Angeles.

“It’s funny. I almost had a chance to play with Gallo in L.A. before I went to Houston,” Paul recalled. “I don’t think I appreciated him as much from afar. You never know when you’re gonna get an opportunity to play with somebody.”

After two seasons apiece with Houston and L.A. respectively, Paul and Gallinari both came to the Thunder in trades within 10 days of one another. Ever since the duo arrived in Oklahoma City, they both have had an incredible impact on not just the stat sheet, but the overall competitiveness level, maturity and on-court intelligence level of the team.

“They both have a really good feel for the game. They both see the game from a pureness standpoint and what’s going on in the game,” Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan noted. “They can articulate and communicate with one another to figure out how they’re being guarded and what they can maybe take advantage of.”

“They’re both very clever, savvy,” reviewed Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers, who coached both Paul and Gallinari separately in L.A. “I think everybody knows who CP is. When you watch Gallo play every day, you realize that he’s very clever.”

For the Thunder this season, Paul has found Gallinari more than any other teammate for assists, as the “Point God” has tested out his dynamic scoring weapon in a variety of settings. In fact, Paul has assisted on 57 of Gallinari's 163 three-pointers this season, the 2nd most in the league. Gallinari can complete plays at all three levels of the floor – at the rim, in the mid-range and deep from behind the arc, the basketball version of a batter that has power and gets on base.

Paul, meanwhile, has been more efficient as a shooter from both the field and behind the arc this season than he was during his last year in Houston. He’s been going to the free-throw line more times per game than he did in 2018-19 thanks to a tricky rip-through move that he employs on unsuspecting opponents when the Thunder is in the bonus.

“The more you play, the more the game slows down and you understand situations,” Paul said.

“(Paul) is really bright and smart. He studies the game. He studies personnel,” Donovan noted. “Guys get into certain situations and he probably realizes, whether it’s on the ball or off the ball, where he can make an impact with his hands and his IQ.”

Gallinari attacks bigs who are not as fleet of foot as he, taking shoulder to shoulder contact and still managing to hoist floaters up to the rim. Against smaller defenders he works out of the post and punishes those guards who dare not ask for a double team. Then, of course, the 31-year-old Italian is deadly in transition. The anticipation in those moments when Paul judiciously pushes the pace with his head up is palpable. He’s constantly on the look-out for Gallinari settling his feet behind the arc as defenders scramble to get back in the play.

“You just hit him. He plays the right way,” Paul said of Gallinari. “I think that’s the good thing about having him as a teammate. He doesn’t force anything. He plays at his own pace. You can’t speed him up.”

In practice, Donovan implores his team to hunt out Gallinari even more, saying that he can score 20 points in his sleep. The phrase has earned him the nickname "venti dorme". It does seem so effortless when he shoots jumpers, even the shots from beyond 28 feet that look like a teenager throwing a sock into a hamper.

“A lot of times people think it’s all about being fast and athleticism and stuff,” Paul began, “but it’s being crafty and knowing how to use your body. Guys also know how deadly he is to shoot.”

On the bench or at the Thunder Ion during practices, Gallinari will pull guys aside some, but he’s more mild-mannered and a leader by example. Paul does it both ways. Now that the Thunder regrouping after the hiatus and re-starting the season in Orlando, it’s been more about setting the tone with defense and energy every game, but to start the season he was extremely vocal.

With young players up and down a roster that had a massive makeover last offseason not just in composition but in leadership, Paul made sure to make his presence felt to maintain the Thunder’s high standards for effort and focus. Even before the season began, he immediately built a relationship with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley, two young players who have taken to Paul’s leadership. He works with rookie and second-year players after practice for long stretches even after everyone else is off the court.

We don’t even need to talk a lot about what we’re doing because we know how to play the game.Danilo Gallinari

Ever-vigilant with his craft, Paul watches other NBA games relentlessly. To keep swelling down and his body in tip-top shape, he adopted a vegan diet this offseason. On game days when the Thunder doesn’t have a morning shootaround, Paul is still in the arena, getting shots up.

“He knows how to take care of his body. He knows how to handle of course the NBA season, the schedule and everything,” Gallinari said of Paul. “He’s an example for the young guys.” “He’s a guy that makes everybody else better,” Gallinari added.

Just from monitoring body language on the court, the connection in the huddles and the innate comfort together on the floor, it’s clear that both Paul and Gallinari have taken to each other. After practices, they sometimes even guard each other on the block, playfully using their size and quickness differentials to their advantage.

Despite all of their stops in the NBA and the Western Conference, Gallinari had never played with a point guard of Paul’s caliber. In turn, Paul’s partners never included a nimble stretch forward with a shooting stroke quite as smooth as Gallinari’s until they both arrived in OKC. “It’s very easy for me and him to play together,” Gallinari explained. “We don’t even need to talk a lot about what we’re doing because we know how to play the game. We know how to read off of each other.” The strength of their burgeoning basketball relationship has ripple effects on the entire group, and is one reason this Thunder squad has stuck together through thick and thin all year long, emerging into a Western Conference contender as the season moved along.

PUZZLE SOLVERS

Ten days after Gallinari’s three sunk Philadelphia, the Thunder was trying to get off a three-game losing skid and pick up its first road win of the season. This time, the opponent was the Golden State Warriors.

Down 10 with 3:18 to go, the Thunder rattled off 13 straight points to come away with a 100-97 victory in the newly minted Chase Center in San Francisco. The game-winning bucket came in tactical fashion.

Paul manipulated the floor to get Gallinari with him in a pick and roll, forcing the defenders to switch. Now a guard was on the Thunder forward and vice-a-versa. Paul passed the ball into the post to Gallinari, a go-to move for the Thunder late in games. The Warriors double-teamed with Paul’s defender instead of with someone on the baseline crashing from the weakside, a move that piqued the point guard’s interest.

“It’s rare, somewhat like the old NBA. We used to double from the top. The new NBA now everybody doubles from the bottom,” Paul noted.

The Thunder duo then ping-ponged the ball back and forth, moving the Warriors defenders ever-so-slightly out of position with each re-set, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

“I told Gallo we sort of looked like the Flint Tropics,” Paul grinned, referencing a scene from the Will Ferrell basketball comedy “Semi-Pro.” “We were throwing it in, throwing it out.”

Finally, the opening presented itself. Gallinari dished it back out to Paul once more, who attacked a poorly rotating Golden State defender, drove to just below the elbow and drained a two-point jumper that put the Thunder ahead for good.

“If I can get to the midrange, I always say that’s my version of a layup,” Paul quipped. “I’ll take that.”

Gallinari had patiently, precisely returned Paul’s crunch-time favor from a week and a half before. At this point in their careers, the Thunder veterans aren’t just play finishers, they’re happy to be the set-up guy, too. It’s all about solving the in-game puzzle, regardless of who puts in the final piece.

“Me and Gallo, we’ve been in those positions a thousand times,” Paul said. “That’s what’s fun about it. You get in those situations and that’s when you gotta execute.”