If you rewind to that chaotic second week of July, when the entire balance of the NBA shifted with one fell swoop, perhaps the most noteworthy thing in hindsight was the wacky game of musical chairs that took place in Oklahoma City.
After back-to-back first-round playoff exits, Paul George blindsided the Thunder by asking to go to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Kawhi Leonard extravaganza, and OKC got a boatload of picks and assets in the deal. But that left Russell Westbrook as the lone star during a rebuild, which didn’t appeal to him. So mere days later, the Thunder traded the one-time MVP to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul.
Paul’s arrival prompted reports that he, too, might be dealt quickly — both to allow him to chase a ring with a title contender and to allow the new-look Thunder to collect even more assets. But eventually the music stopped, and it became clear that the 34-year-old and his enormous contract would stay put. Little did we know that ending up with the Thunder would unlock this renaissance version of Paul — one that can take over games and legitimately be the NBA’s best closer.
That’s been the reality for Oklahoma City, which faces the Rockets on Thursday night in Westbrook’s first trip back since the trade. With Paul’s revival, the Thunder have won 10 of their last 12 and are tied for the second-most wins in the league since the start of December. They undoubtedly have talent. Second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like he’s on the cusp of taking the next step, leading the team with nearly 20 points per game. Right behind him are sixth man Dennis Schröder and starting forward Danilo Gallinari, both of whom average 18 per night. Big man Steven Adams is the same as he ever was, regularly logging double-doubles.
That base of talent is enough to keep the Thunder competitive most nights: OKC has played more tight games — ones with the teams separated by 5 points or fewer in the final five minutes of play — than any other ballclub thus far. And once Oklahoma City makes it to that stage, the club has opponents right where it wants them: at the mercy of CP3.
Take Tuesday’s win over Brooklyn. Paul had just 8 points through the first three quarters, but then he exploded for 20 more in the fourth quarter and overtime. In a win last month against the Bulls, Paul had 19 points in the final period to bring the Thunder back from 26 down. He also had 13 in the fourth against Luka Dončić and the Mavs to lead a late comeback victory on New Year’s Eve.
Altogether, Paul’s 103 points in the clutch are the NBA’s most, 20 more than the next closest player. To put that into proper context, consider that Paul — who hasn’t finished in the league’s top five in clutch scoring since 2011-12 — ranked 153rd in the category last season,1 47th in 2017-18 and 65th in 2016-17. That he’s been the league’s best now, at 34, is remarkable, especially considering that there appeared to be signs (like his diminished efficiency as a 1-on-1 scorer) that he was slowing down last season in Houston.
If there’s a method to Paul’s madness, it’s that he’s literally twice as aggressive about finding his own shot when the game is on the line. His clutch-time usage rate this season is almost 32 percent, while his usage rate in first quarters is just under 16 percent — a trend that’s long been part of his playing style.
That style has been a refreshing change of pace for the Thunder, who watched Victor Oladipo blossom into an All-Star just one season after leaving OKC and the ball-dominant Westbrook and are now seeing how it looks when a floor general takes a step back to let his teammate flourish. A number of Oklahoma City’s games have played out like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” with a veteran handing responsibility over to a youngster who needs help to ultimately finish the task.
Gilgeous-Alexander has grown more comfortable and more strong in the paint. Per Second Spectrum, he has taken far more floaters than he did all of last year, and he is already on the cusp of logging more and-ones2 than the 21 he had in 2018-19. (And while his usage rate decreases considerably in late-game scenarios when Paul takes over, it’s worth noting that Gilgeous-Alexander’s 75.2 true shooting percentage in the clutch is the NBA’s best among players with 20 shot attempts or more.)
OKC has been flat-out dominant when coach Billy Donovan plays Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder together, with the trio outscoring foes by 27.6 points per 100 possessions — the NBA’s second-best mark among three-man lineups that have played at least 150 minutes together so far. And the team’s defense, just 13th in efficiency overall, has been the league’s second-best in fourth quarters, putting a lid on the rim when it matters most.
Still, it’s hard to overstate just how good Paul has been at getting to his spots, where he’s hitting jumpers that weren’t part of the playbook of his last club. Defenses know he can’t get to the rim anymore — a career-low 5.3 percent of his shots are from the restricted area — yet they can’t stop him from midrange, where he has somehow connected on an NBA-best 56.4 percent of his tries. Using Second Spectrum’s quantified Shooter Impact metric, which gauges how much better or worse a player performs than an average player taking the same shots would be expected to, Paul is outshooting his expected effective field-goal percentage by almost 15 points in fourth quarters and overtime, by far the highest rate in the league.3
It’s likely that none of this will change the Thunder’s outlook as merely a low-level playoff team out West, assuming they don’t trade themselves into another stratosphere, be it higher or lower. But then again, we didn’t expect the aging Paul to make what began as a game of musical chairs nearly this entertaining. So enjoy the throwback performances while you can.
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