Chris Paul may be a bit long in the tooth in his 15th season, but it was naive to assume he and the Thunder would go down without a serious fight in Game 3 of the Western Conference first round.
Paul and the Thunder were bottled (to put it charitably) in the first two games of the series as the Rockets took a 2–0 lead. Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander combined for 35 points on 34 shots in Game 1 on Tuesday, and Paul finished with a -36 in 37 minutes in Game 2 on Thursday. A similar performance on Saturday would have effectively ended the series.
James Harden's former running mate stepped up in Game 3, as did his supporting cast. Paul finished the night with 26 points, while Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder combined for 52. And even though Paul missed a game-winning attempt at the end of regulation, Oklahoma City is now alive following a 119-107 overtime victory. There will be no sweep. A potential dogfight awaits.
"We definitely let one get away, especially in that last minute," Harden said postgame "Throughout the course of the game, we just made too many mental mistakes and gave them too many opportunities to score. It's that simple."
The Rockets were in control of the contest for much of the first half, and they held a 102-97 lead with less than a minute to play. But Oklahoma City didn't quit. Paul hit a layup then forced a turnover, and an errant out-of-bounds pass gave Oklahoma City a chance to take the lead with 24 seconds left. Paul then beat Harden off the dribble, found Gilgeous-Alexander in the corner and watched a three splash through the net. The Rockets appeared to be heading toward a commanding 3–0 series lead. Paul had other ideas.
Paul's heroics continued in overtime. He hit two threes (including a rainbow triple at the end of the shot clock) and with James Harden on the bench after fouling out, Houston's offense seriously stalled. The Rockets made just one of eight shots in overtime. They made 15 of 50 threes on the night, with five of the made triples coming from Jeff Green. After ceding a flood of easy looks in Game 1 and Game 2, the Thunder defense finally found a rhythm late. A similar effort over the next week could make for a long series.
"[Paul] did what he's been doing for the last 15 years," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "He's just a great player and a great clutch player and really thinks the game. ...It's going to be about who can come out with the will in the next game to go get a win."
Harden led all scorers with 38 points on Saturday night, but it was far from an easy performance in Game 3. Harden made just 12 of 27 shots and three of 13 threes, and he struggled late against Oklahoma City forward Luguentz Dort. The Thunder have the personnel to slow Harden throughout the series. They finally delivered on that potential on Saturday.
The Rockets had a real chance to seize the series on Saturday night. They held the lead with 24 seconds to play, but a poor turnover–and worse defensive possession–now keep a feisty Thunder team more than alive. Paul is too tough to simply fade from the postseason. His supporting cast is flawed, yet dogged. The Rockets will need to play the full 48 minutes on Monday, or they risk evening a series that briefly appeared all but over.