Down two points with 24 seconds left and on the precipice of a dreaded 3-0 series deficit, the Oklahoma City Thunder had the ball in the best place it could be.
Chris Paul had it, top of the key some 30 feet from the basket, ready to run pick-and-roll. There has been no player better at scoring in the clutch this season than Paul, and because of it, no team has been better at winning close than the Thunder. OKC’s 30 clutch-time wins were the most in the NBA this season. It’s become the Thunder’s formula of sorts. Stay close and let the Point God clock in.
Rookie guard Luguentz Dort set a screen on Paul’s defender, Jeff Green, forcing a Houston Rockets switch to pull James Harden onto Paul. The OKC point guard backed out a step, reset and hit a quick in-and-out dribble, dusting Harden and drawing two other help defenders. Paul fired a pinpoint jump pass right into the shooting pocket of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and with 14.3 seconds left, splash. The Thunder led by one.
It took overtime — and Paul nailing two back-breaking 3s in that final five minutes — but the Thunder did what they failed to do in the first two games: They kept it close and let the Point God be the Clutch God. He’s like a werewolf: When the sun goes down on the game, Paul transforms.
“What he’s been doing for the last probably 15 years,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Paul’s closing act. “He’s just a great player, a great clutch player and really thinks the game.”
The Thunder have won those kinds of games all season, but there’s no question they were benefited by James Harden’s fouling out less than a minute into overtime. Without their own clutch monster to lift them, the Rockets were outscored 15-3 in the extra frame as the Thunder crawled back into the series 119-107.
Paul took the burden of Oklahoma City’s two losses, saying he had to show up. The Rockets’ quirky, small-ball, switch-everything defense was messing with the Thunder’s ball movement and spacing, and Paul wasn’t getting into his rhythm of running the game. He vowed to be more aggressive and decisive.
Now, the Thunder feel like they have found some rhythm and have begun to solve the Rockets’ switchy scheme.
“I think we’re starting to figure out how to play against their defense,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think we’ve figured it out and are excited about going forward.”
But what seemed obvious to many was that the Thunder might have to consider an adjustment to the Rockets’ pocket ball. It was a theme coming into the series: How Adams would impact the series and if his value as a rim protector and interior force would counterbalance the mismatches.
“Well, I think we’ve got a huge advantage in Steven Adams,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Steven is a rim protector, a rim roller and an offensive rebounder. He’s obviously been really important to the team. I think a lot of teams, people maybe look at the fact Houston is small and you sit there and say, ‘OK, Houston is small; we’ve just got to go small to match with them.’ I think Steven, when he’s rolling to the rim, he actually draws in a lot, and they’ve got to account for him.”
But as the Thunder closed on Saturday, with Adams doubtful to return after a knee contusion late in the game, Donovan rolled the dice. He turned to backup center Nerlens Noel for a few possessions. But for all of overtime, Oklahoma City matched Houston small ball for small ball, playing Gallinari at center alongside four guards.
“The group was playing pretty well,” Donovan said, “so we kind of stayed with that group.”
Luguentz Dort shows great defense after coming up with a big block on James Harden.
The Thunder possess the NBA’s top lineup — at least statistically — with a three-guard attack anchored by Adams and Gallinari that bludgeoned opponents by a ridiculous 29.9 points per 100 possessions in 177 regular-season minutes. The second-best lineup in the NBA (minimum of 150 minutes) was a plus-20.2.
For the Thunder, 55.4% of that lineup’s minutes came in the fourth quarter, it being the preferred method to winning close games. It’s their endgame lineup. They put defenses in a bind with all the actions, ballhandling, dribble-attacking and counteractions; and with tough, competitive players such as Paul and Dennis Schroder, the lack of size wasn’t a factor on the defensive end.
Against the Rockets, Donovan is at a crossroads with his best unit. The Thunder have a de facto Harden stopper — or at least as much of one as anyone in the entire universe could hope to have — in Dort. The undrafted rookie out of Arizona State has made a name for himself as a defender, taking over the starting spot at shooting guard for the Thunder in January. He has elite defensive intangibles, moving his feet exceptionally well, controlling ball handlers with his barrel chest and keeping his hands out of the Harden cookie jar.
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Harden has scored 25 of his 96 total points against Dort in three games this series, but 15 of those have come from the line. From the field, Harden is shooting just 4-of-19 (21%) in the half court with Dort as his primary defender, as compared to 24-of-42 (57%) against all others. Against Dort, Harden averages 0.93 points per play; he is at 1.41 against everyone else.
Dort, as any player who has ever ironically played shooting guard for the Thunder, is a shooting liability. The Rockets are ignoring him, daring him to let fly. OKC needs him on Harden, though, and since the rules explicitly state you can’t play six players, something has to give with the Thunder’s closing group.
In Game 3, it was Adams.
“Steven Adams got hurt, so that might have been one reason,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I mean, Steven Adams is a heck of a player, so you’re asking him to go off the floor. I don’t know. Billy will do a great job. He’ll do what he thinks is good for his team; but whatever team they put out there, we should be able to attack them and get it done.”
It’s a wrinkle the Thunder have, and one that possibly saved the series for them, whether by design or divine intervention. The endgame lineup has been the Thunder’s nightly emergency option, the easy button to push to signal a win. But it’s caught in a Harden-driven bind, and one in which the answer appears to be a heavy dose of Dort. Even if it means breaking the formula.