Chris Paul continues to dazzle, and red-hot Thunder continue to look like potential buyers at the deadline

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Paul George this past July, and shortly thereafter Russell Westbrook, it was supposed to signal the start of a rebuild, and thus the official end of one of the most consistently successful franchises over the past 15 years. Making the playoffs wasn't even a thought. Chris Paul was supposed to be a short-timer waiting to be traded himself. Vegas set OKC's over/under for total wins at 32.5. 

Oops. 

Here we are going into the second week of January, and the Thunder are 21-16, good enough for the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference playoff race after a 111-103 overtime victory over Brooklyn on Tuesday. OKC has now won 10 of its past 12 games, a stretch that includes victories over the Sixers, Mavericks, Raptors and Clippers. Paul was sensational, as he has been all season, particularly when it has mattered most. 

On Tuesday, Paul scored 20 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including 10 of OKC's final 12 down the stretch of regulation. He got wherever he wanted to get with his snaking dribble -- as he continues to do on a nightly basis with a ease that belies his age -- before tying the game with a vintage mid-range jumper with 47.4 seconds to play in the fourth. 

Through Tuesday, the Thunder have played in more clutch games -- defined as a five-point game with five or fewer minutes to play -- than any other team in the league. They have a 1.5 point differential for the season. They have won eight games by five or fewer points. If they didn't come up big in the biggest moments, their record would look entirely different. 

But they do come up big. Mostly thanks to Paul, who leads the league with 103 total clutch points while scoring 6.3 points per fourth quarter. That number is almost identical to Russell Westbrook's 6.4 points per fourth quarter, which makes for interesting fodder considering the two were traded for one another and there continues to be a lot of evidence that the Rockets screwed up. 

Look at the shooting splits in the fourth quarter. Westbrook, for his 6.4 points, is shooting 43 percent from field, 26 percent from three and 78 percent from the free-throw line. Paul is shooing 54-39-95 in the fourth. Westbrook is minus-2.1 in his fourth-quarter minutes. Paul is plus-2.9. 

That's just a little side comparison to further illustrate how fantastic Paul has been for the Thunder, who have blown past any and all expectations to such a degree that there are league executives who believe they could become a buyer, rather than a seller, at the trade deadline, per Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer

This was unthinkable at the start of the season. Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, perhaps Paul if anyone would be willing to take on such a massive contract, all these guys were thought to be on their way out. Now it's reasonable to believe OKC has changed its thinking to who they can bring in to join in this playoff chase. 

After all, the Thunder are four games up in the loss column on the No. 8 Spurs. Their position is pretty secure, relatively speaking. Would a team that already has all the future assets it needs really just drop out of the playoff chase to maybe add a few more? If someone comes calling for Paul with a young, emerging player and a first-round pick, sure, OKC probably pulls the trigger and backs out of this unexpected fun run. If someone throws an unprotected first-rounder at them for Gallinari, fine. 

These things may very well happen. Again, Paul is playing brilliantly. I recently suggested the Sixers should be beating OKC's door down trying to trade for him, and if they did that, perhaps offering Josh Richardson and a 2021 first-round pick, the Thunder would have to do that deal given the gap between Paul's age and their timeline for true contention. 

But until something like that happens, why wouldn't OKC go for this? You look at this roster, and it's not some unsustainable story of overachievement. This is a good team. Add one more solid piece, and this could potentially be a team right there with the likes of Utah and maybe even Denver. Can you imagine a first-round 3-6 playoff matchup between Houston and OKC? It's not out of the question. 

However this thing plays out between now and the deadline, anyone who thought Paul was washed up and the Thunder were done deserves a time out. Yours truly is not one of the offenders. I picked the Thunder to make the playoffs back in July and I'm standing by it, as long as this roster stays in place. Whether that happens is becoming one of the more interesting stories as the February 6th trade deadline approaches. 

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