And that’s what he did on Saturday, putting the Thunder back in the series with a 119-107 overtime win over the Houston Rockets.
“I think we just wanted to fight,” Paul said. “We know how tough it is coming back from down 3-0, so we wanted to fight tonight and that’s what we did.”
Paul finished with 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting, plus 6 rebounds and 5 assists in 41 minutes.
He made a basket to put the Thunder within three late in the fourth, House then stepped out of bounds to give the Thunder the ball back. A layup by Steven Adams cut it to 102-101 with less than 30 seconds to go in the fourth. Paul and Harden got tangled up with Harden before the ball was thrown inbounds. Harden made a free throw, but Houston turned it over.
Paul then set teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander up with a pinpoint pass for the go-ahead 3 with 14.3 seconds left and once the game went to overtime following split free throws by Rockets guard Danuel House, Paul went to work. With James Harden fouled out, Paul hit two 3s in a 60-second window, including a ridiculous fadeaway from the wing as the shot clock expired, to seal Game 3.
“I think I needed to play with better pace,” Paul said. “Be more aggressive. Take shots when they’re there. And be better defensively. I gave up a lot of corner 3s, a lot of defensive assignments. Aside from the shots, I think I was a lot better defensively.”
Paul’s first two games weren’t that bad — at least statistically speaking — with him averaging 17.0 points on 44.8 percent shooting. In Game 2, though, he was a jarring minus-36, pointing at the defensive end as a focus and put it on himself to fix those issues. In Game 3, he was a game-high plus-15.
“I gave up a lot of corner 3s, a lot of defensive assignments,” Paul said of what he wanted to correct from Game 2. “Aside from the shots, I think I was a lot better defensively.”
Where Paul has dominated this season, restoring himself as an All-Star and likely All-NBA selection, has been in clutch-time where he led the league in scoring by a fairly wide margin. He’s been one of the biggest shot-makers in close games, working possessions to get to his spots in the midrange and manipulating defenses at will.
“Chris is the master at manipulating pick-and-rolls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “When we get the floor in a fashion against them that is not spaced correctly, it’s hard to play in pick-and-rolls because they’re switching everything. Tonight I thought we had better spacing and were able to move a little freer.”
The Thunder built their record largely on winning close games, leaning on Paul’s brilliance and the support of Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, who also were some of the league’s top clutch-time scorers. In Games 1 and 2, the Thunder weren’t close enough in the final five minutes for those chops to show. They struggled sorting out Houston’s switch-everything defensive scheme, but in Game 3 corrected some of the issues, kept it close, and that’s where Paul took over.
“What he’s been doing for the last probably 15 years,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Paul’s closing shots. “He’s just a great player, a great clutch player and really thinks the game.”
D’Antoni was heated in the final minutes about a player involving Paul, though. After Paul had put the Rockets away, with 1:20 left he was called for an offensive foul where he appeared to catch Rockets guard Ben McLemore below the belt with an elbow as Paul put the ball on the floor to attack the basket. The play wasn’t review and D’Antoni spent the final 90 seconds of the game yelling the referees about it, getting a technical foul in the process.
“Who knows?” D’Antoni said when asked why it wasn’t reviewed. “I asked the referee to just go over and review it. He might have been right. I didn’t have it clear, but I know my guy got hit in a bad place with an elbow, so go look at it. If you’re right, you’re right. So be it. But it’s not like in the bubble, we have – must be entertainment going on somewhere, because what else do we have to do but just go over and look at it, come back and play basketball?”
Said Harden: “I saw what happened. Any time that happens, it should be reviewed, especially when it’s not like around a lot of people. I know I’ve done that, and it got reviewed before. That’s all we was asking for, is a review … I don’t know [if it was intentional], but it should have been reviewed. Especially if someone gets hit in their private area. I mean, we didn’t have nowhere to go, so it should have been reviewed. I felt like it wasn’t and I don’t know why not.”
In Game 1, Harden caught Schroder with a knee under the belt, a play that wasn’t noticed by the Thunder in real-time and also went unreviewed.
Paul, who has long tried to shake a reputation of low blows after an incident in college where he hit NC State guard Julius Hodge, said the play with McLemore was unintentional.
“I tried to get by him. It was incidental,” Paul said. “I know when I did it on purpose, that was in college. That was a long time ago. I checked on Ben, he said he was fine. I know Mike. He’s gonna get mad, he’s gonna yell and scream. He got a tech. We move on.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.