Down six with 3:40 left, it looked as though the suitcases could be loaded up and the paperwork filed for checkout of the NBA bubble. But as they’ve done all season, with the game close, the Thunder turned things over to Chris Paul, who scored eight of their final 12 points, including two go-ahead free throws with 13.1 seconds left, to deliver a 104-100 victory and force a Game 7 on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
“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 — and zero turnovers — in 40 minutes, with a game-high plus-20. Every other Thunder starter was a minus in plus/minus, and the next highest were Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder at plus-6.
The win Monday set the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7 in the Western Conference first-round playoff series against Paul’s former team, something not lost on the Thunder star but also not something that he says 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.”
Game 6 was an impressive recovery by the Thunder after they took a 34-point drubbing in Game 5. 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.
Game 6 also featured the Rockets faltering, notably former Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who had two crucial turnovers in the final 90 seconds and badly air-balled 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 from a quadriceps injury in Game 5, playing under control but clearly out of rhythm. After not turning it over in Game 5, he had seven turnovers 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 that Westbrook needs rhythm, and between his entering the bubble late because of a positive COVID-19 test and his quad injury, he hasn’t had much court time to develop any rhythm. He is also on a minutes restriction, which doesn’t help. He said after Game 6 that he will remain on one for Game 7.
Westbrook’s decision-making in crunch time has been one of the most criticized aspects of his game throughout 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 Harden’s 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 and the Thunder edging out close, crunch-time 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). That has been their formula all season, with 33 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 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 Disney’s Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World Resort: the Thunder and the Rockets. They’re in the same building, separated by one floor. On Wednesday, both teams will pack before they head to the arena. After their game, one team will put its suitcases on a plane home, and the other will go back to the rooms to unpack and prepare for a series against the Los Angeles Lakers.