Chris Paul saved the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season.
In the final minutes of the fourth quarter on Monday, the veteran point guard made back-to-back three-pointers to tie Game 6 of their first-round series with the Houston Rockets, and then sank a pair of free throws to give OKC the lead for good in a 104-100 victory. A win-or-go-home Game 7 is set for Wednesday.
“This is who we are,” Paul told the TNT broadcast afterwards. “We’re built for stuff like this. A lot of guys on our team have been pushed out, traded or whatnot, but we just stick together and we keep fighting.”
Paul scored 28 points on Monday, pushing the team that traded him last summer to the brink. A year after he helped lead the Rockets to Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals, Houston traded him, along with four first-round picks, to Oklahoma City for former MVP Russell Westbrook. The move signal a rebuild for the Thunder, who also shipped Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, but Paul’s steady hand guided a Thunder team to the playoffs on the strength of their execution in clutch situations all year.
Monday was no different. A Paul three-pointer gave Oklahoma City a 91-84 lead with 8:11 remaining, but the game appeared to turn in Houston’s favor when a Dennis Schroder layup was waved off, and Paul was called for a technical foul. The sequence capped a 14-1 Rockets run that dug the Thunder a 92-86 hole with 4:19 left. Paul answered with consecutive threes, the second of which he made over the outstretched arms of Robert Covington. Paul could be seen patting Covington on the rear as they headed the other way.
Westbrook and Schroder traded layups, and then Paul beat Covington off the dribble, drawing a reach-in foul to set the stage for the go-ahead free throws. A Westbrook turnover on the other end and a pair of Danilo Gallinari free throws sealed the deal. Westbrook and fellow former MVP James Harden finished 1-for-6 from the field with three turnovers — two of which resulted in Paul steals — over the final four minutes.
“He’s got unbelievable basketball IQ,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Paul. “He’s incredibly smart. He’s a great competitor. He’s got an incredible will to win. When you have a guy with that kind of mind, manipulating and surveying the court the way he does, he did an incredible job. … He was spectacular.”
Harden totaled 32 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but got little help from anyone but Covington (18 points) and wilted down the stretch. Westbrook returned from a quadriceps injury in Game 5, but limped to the locker room midway through the third quarter of Game 6. He returned five minutes later, only to miss four of his last six shots and commit three of his seven turnovers. Westbrook finished with 17 points.
Game 6 fourth quarter:
Chris Paul: 15 points on 5-7 shooting, 3-3 from 3, 0 turnovers
Westbrook and Harden: 10 points on 3-11 shooting, 1-4 from 3, 3 turnovers
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) September 1, 2020
The Thunder got 25 points from Gallinari, but Paul ran the show. Oklahoma City outscored Houston by 20 points with the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer on the floor. Every other Thunder starter was a net minus.
It should not be lost on anyone that Paul is the president of the players’ union, a role that required unprecedented leadership during last week’s strike. In a matter of days, he has saved the season for the league in a hotel ballroom and saved it for his team on the AdventHealth Arena court. After Monday’s game, Paul credited the players for their professionalism in the face of injustices outside the Orlando bubble.
Now, Game 7 comes down to Paul and Harden, the two former teammates whose “unsalvageable” relationship led to last summer’s trade. Both will enter with a reputation for falling short of playoff expectations, culminating in last year’s six-game loss to a Golden State Warriors team down Kevin Durant.
The Rockets entered the playoffs with title aspirations. The Thunder were seen as a stepping stone to Houston’s Western Conference semifinals meeting with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, but Paul had other plans. His clutch play on Monday quieted the critics, but Game 7 can change the narrative entirely.
“We gave ourselves a chance,” Paul shouted following his heroic turn. “Game 7, anything can happen.”
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