With four minutes left in Monday night's Game 6, the Thunder trailed the Rockets 98-92. After Dennis Schroder was called for an offensive foul, Chris Paul got hit with a technical that gave James Harden a free throw and pushed Houston's lead to six.
Oklahoma City could have folded there in that moment and its 2019-20 campaign still would have been considered a success: The Thunder weren't expected to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference, let alone nearly land in the top four of the standings. There would have been no shame in losing to a Rockets team with championship aspirations.
Except, the Thunder have Paul — and though the 35-year-old may be removed from his athletic prime, his skill level, basketball IQ and competitive resolve have made him the best clutch player in basketball this season.
Over the final four minutes of regulation, Paul hit two huge 3-pointers, snagged a couple steals and calmly drained the free throws that put the Thunder ahead for good. OKC finished Game 6 on a 12-2 run, ultimately winning by a final score of 104-100 and forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday.
Paul's confidence was palpable. After one particularly difficult attempt from beyond the arc splashed through the net, he tapped Rockets forward Robert Covington on the rear end, almost as if to say, "Nice try, kid. Better luck next time."
CP3's late triples helped the Thunder stave off elimination pic.twitter.com/H8fxBG7kVI— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 1, 2020
This performance was a continuation of what Paul has been doing ever since the Rockets traded him to the Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook last summer. Through the regular season and playoffs, Paul has totaled 171 points in clutch time, the most in the NBA, while shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from 3-point range.
"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 in his postgame interview. "You saw (Damian Lilliard), all that stuff. Some (are) people built for it, man. We're gonna keep hooping."
Maybe Paul's comments weren't meant as a dig at Harden and Westbrook — but it was hard not to see it that way considering Lillard eliminated Westbrook's Thunder from the postseason in 2019. Neither Harden nor Westbrook did much down the stretch in Game 6:
|Paul||Fourth quarter stats||Harden/Westbrook|
|3-3||3-point field goals||1-4|
Westbrook turned the ball over seven times in just 27 minutes, including a poor pass to Covington on a crucial possession late in the fourth quarter. He air-balled a midrange jumper with the score tied at 100 and under a minute to go.
Harden's line of 32 points, eight rebounds and seven assists looked good in the box score, but he also had five turnovers and seemed content to let the offense run through Westbrook as the Thunder took control.
Watch this and tell me Harden wanted the ball to decide the game. You cannot give less effort to get the ball. 3 clips. (One is just front row seat to schroeder drive). Its Game 6 of a playoff game! pic.twitter.com/ELbNwcAFIZ— Chris Vernon (@ChrisVernonShow) September 1, 2020
The Rockets' three wins in the series have come by margins of 15, 13 and 34 points. But when it has been tight in the fourth quarter, the Thunder have prevailed. Hoping your team is up by 15 or more before the start of the final period isn't a great strategy.
OKC heads into Game 7 knowing which player will steer the ship in those key moments.
If Houston finds itself in that position, though, who will step up? It sure would be nice to have someone like Paul.