Before the Oklahoma City Thunder boarded their bus to head to the arena for an elimination Game 6 against the Houston Rockets, they had to pack their bags.
Down six with 3:40 left, it looked like the suitcases could be loaded up and the paperwork filed for check out of the bubble. But as they’ve done all season, with the game close, they turned things over to Chris Paul, who scored 8 of their final 12 points, including two go-ahead free throws with 13.1 seconds left, forcing a Game 7 on Wednesday.
“When it gets to clutch time, fourth quarter, some people are built for it, some people shy away from it,” Paul told TNT’s Jared Greenberg after the game. “Some people are built for it, man, and we’re just gonna keep hoopin.”
Paul finished with 28 points in 40 minutes — and zero turnovers — and a game-high plus-20. Every other Thunder starter was a minus in plus/minus, and the next highest was Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder at plus-6.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Paul now had four career playoff games with 25-plus points and zero turnovers, tying him for third most among active players. Only Kevin Durant and LeBron James have more.
It sets the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7 against Paul’s former team, something not lost on the Thunder star, but also not something that serves as extra motivation.
“Game 6 was against the Rockets [too]. Just to be honest with you,” he said. “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, we wanna hoop, we wanna win. Yes, it was the team I played for last year, but regardless, it’s gonna be the same energy no matter who it is.”
It was an impressive bounceback for the Thunder after taking a 34-point drubbing in Game 5, but with a strong supporting game from Danilo Gallinari (25 points) and stout defense throughout, they got the game into the final minutes where they thrive.
It also featured the Rockets faltering, notably former Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who had two critical turnovers in the final 90 seconds and badly airballed a midrange jumper. After Paul’s two go-ahead free throws, Westbrook briefly drove the lane but kicked out to Robert Covington, throwing the ball out of bounds with 7.6 seconds left.
“I mean, a lot of the mistakes that we’ve made in close games have been on us, to be honest,” Westbrook said. “You watch the turnover on my part, some turnovers, a turnover I think two games ago with Eric [Gordon]. So it’s kind of been on us, to be completely honest. That’s a fix that we’ve got to be able to do to close the game out.”
Westbrook made his return in Game 5 from a quad injury, playing under control but clearly out of rhythm. After not turning it over in Game 5, he had seven in Game 6.
“That’s just my fault, honestly. That’s easy,” he said. “Last game I had zero. Tonight I had seven. Simple as that.”
It’s well known Westbrook needs rhythm and after entering the bubble late because of a positive COVID-19 test, then the quad injury, he hasn’t had much court time to develop any. He’s also on a minute restriction, which doesn’t help. And he said after Game 6 he will remain on one for Game 7.
But Westbrook’s decision-making in crunch time has been one of the most criticized aspects of his career, and in Game 6 he took control of the offense in the closing minutes as James Harden stood by. On the final possession, with Harden sitting on 32 points, the ball never touched his hands.
“The play was for Russ to attack the basket, and he attacked the basket,” Harden said. “And he made the decision he didn’t feel that he was open.”
The series has built a pattern, with the Rockets winning their games by double-figures while the Thunder have edged out close, crunchtime wins. In the series, the Thunder have outscored the Rockets 42-31 in clutch-time (the last five minutes of a game within five points). It’s been their formula all season long, with 33 total clutch-time wins, the most in the NBA. In the fourth quarter of Game 6, Paul had 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting with zero turnovers. Westbrook and Harden combined for 10 points on 3-of-11 with three turnovers.
“He gets so much credit for being such a savant as a basketball player and having basketball IQ, intellect, feel for the game — it’s all off the charts,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Paul. “But I do think one of the things that 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 to spots on the floor, and if he gets to those spots, you feel pretty good about the shots he’s gonna put in.”
As Paul left the floor on Monday, he elbow-bumped staffers and bounced his way to the Thunder locker room.
“We just wanted a chance!” he yelled as he entered the locker room. “We just wanted a chance! Game 7 anything can happen!”
There are only two teams remaining at the Grand Floridian — the Thunder and Rockets. They’re in the same building, separated by only a floor. And on Wednesday, both teams will pack before they head to the arena. One will put their suitcases on a plane home, the other back to their rooms to unpack and prepare for a series with the Los Angeles Lakers.
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