Schroder had been there basically since tipoff of Monday’s Game 4, but he wanted to remind Paul who they were playing against. He wanted to give Paul an extra push against his former team.
“I know I can be stubborn and hard in my ways. But this game right here, Dennis was on my head,” Paul said. “To give it, you’ve got to be able to take it. That’s what our team has prided itself on, making sure we communicate in the good times and the bad.”
The Rockets opened the second half of Game 4 with a flurry from deep, going 8-for-8 from 3 to open up a 15-point lead. According to Elias Sports Bureau data, it was the first time in the past 20 postseasons a team has opened a quarter hitting eight straight 3s.
It was the kind of barrage that can deflate an opponent. The Thunder were contesting shots, scrambling to closeouts and trying to keep up with the ball. It didn’t matter.
Robert Covington hit one with a hand in his face. Eric Gordon hit one off the dribble, stepping back. James Harden rocked his defender to sleep to drill one. Each one felt a little more backbreaking than the last, and as the lead swelled, it seemed inevitable: The Rockets appeared set to cruise to a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The Thunder chipped away. They were losing the arithmetic, trading 2s for 3s, but they also weren’t panicking. Paul continued to hit slap singles, calmly knocking down midrange pull-ups in response to each Houston artillery shell. As the Rockets poured in eight 3s, Paul quietly scored 11 points.
“That was crazy, to tell you the truth,” Paul said. “We came in at halftime and coach was like, ‘First quarter we gave up eight 3s, second quarter we gave up two,’ and it was trending in a positive direction.
“Then they came out — wham, wham, wham.”
But while the Rockets might have started the second half 8-for-8 from 3, they went 5-for-26 the rest of the way (including a near full-court heave by Danuel House at the buzzer).
The Rockets took an 88-73 lead with 5:51 left in the third. Oklahoma City outscored them 44-26 to close the game, winning 117-114 to even the opening-round series at two games apiece.
Harden, who came into Game 4 battling defensive ace Luguentz Dort, started hot but missed seven of his final eight 3s and nine of his last 12 field goal attempts.
“We relaxed, they gained confidence and that’s what happened,” Harden said.
It’s cliche to cite the “live by the 3, die by the 3” adage here, as this showing was nowhere near the cruelty of 27 straight misses from 3 in the Western Conference finals two years ago. But it does seem to define these Rockets.
Without Russell Westbrook, who continues to deal with a quad injury and has yet to play in this series, to change the pace of their microball attack, and the Thunder tilting their defense to slowing Harden, the Rockets dried up from deep.
And it didn’t help that the Rockets weren’t playing the kind of defense that buoyed them up from dry spells in Games 1 and 2.
“Teams are going to make runs, but it’s the way they made their run,” Harden said. “We weren’t getting our shots that we want offensively; and defensively, we weren’t sticking to our principles.
“It was a disaster on both ends.”
The Rockets launched 58 3-pointers in Game 4, breaking their own record for postseason 3s attempted of 56, set two games ago. And they were three makes away in Game 4 from breaking the record for made 3s in a game.
In the first three quarters, the Rockets made their contested shots, averaging 1.2 points per play on them, including 50% from 3.
In the fourth quarter, they averaged 0.8 points per play on contested shots, including 23% from 3.
“I thought we had our looks. We didn’t make them,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We turned the ball over a couple of times. That hurt us. It was well-fought. I thought both teams had a chance to win. We just didn’t do it.”
Once the Thunder got it close, they activated their famed closing approach. They tweaked their preferred lineup, keeping Dort on the floor to match Harden while center Steven Adams sat the final four minutes. It’s a lineup choice Billy Donovan had to make down the stretch of Game 3, and one he went to again to finish Game 4.
It’s not an easy decision, but for the Thunder, in comparison to the Rockets, it is a luxury to at least have one.
With Houston’s commitment to super small ball, there is no available lineup adjustment to make. The Thunder are picking between big or small, but as the 6-foot-1 Schroder scored 30 points, including a number of layups in the fourth quarter, the absence of interior rim protection was felt by Houston.
Chris Paul eyes a midrange shot over James Harden as the Thunder lead by two possessions late against the Rockets.
Paul has been the engineer of every Thunder comeback. Donovan has talked with his team this postseason about “emotional toughness” and the mental challenge of playing a quirky team like the Rockets. The Thunder have a competitive edge in Paul and Schroder, but they also don’t overreact. Composure is a calling card of the Point God, and in the squall of treys from Houston, the Thunder never lost it.
“With a guy like [Paul] on the floor, with whoever it is, whether it’s veteran guys or young guys, he has a way of stopping runs and finding ways to generate good shots,” Donovan said. “When he’s using his mind like that, he understands, ‘OK, the momentum is going here,’ and he really changed it.”
The Thunder have made winning games in the clutch their staple this season (32 wins, including the postseason; most in the NBA), but they’ve also often had to claw to get there.
They have an NBA-best nine wins this season (including the playoffs) after trailing by 15 or more points. Their winning percentage in games trailing by 15 or more is the third best in the past 20 seasons, and the two teams better than them (2016-17 Golden State Warriors and 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks) both won titles.
Through four games, the formula for both teams is becoming clear: The Rockets had two dominant, overwhelming wins based on hyperactive defense and timely shot-making; and the Thunder responded in Games 3 and 4 by weathering shooting storms and just getting the game to clutch time, where Paul lives.
Game 5 will probably tell the same story. If the Rockets live by the 3, it would seem the Thunder have to die by it. But with the poise of Paul and the Thunder’s clutch prowess, there appears to be a third way: Survive it, then thrive.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.