This one is tough to write, because Chris Paul is so freaking great and he was arguably the best player on the floor in the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, becoming the oldest player in NBA history (35) to record a triple-double in a Game 7 with 19 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. He made plays all over the court in the second half. He stuck huge 3-pointers. He had OKC in position to pull off what would've felt like a much bigger upset than a typical 4-5 series.
But he absolutely butchered crunch time.
Particularly the game's decisive possession.
Let's start with just over three minutes remaining in the game. The Thunder are down two. This is obviously a huge possession, and Paul gets Eric Gordon in his sights on the right wing. He dances, flashes his handle, which normally works, but this time Gordon stones him, at which point Paul picks up his dribble with nowhere to go and ends up turning it over.
Now let's move to the 1:21 mark in the fourth quarter. OKC is down by one. At this point in the game, this is potentially a game- and series-deciding possession, and Paul, who has been cooking in the fourth and is obviously OKC's best player, simply has to have his prints on it.
Instead, he's passive. First, he accepts a double team and passes out of it, which is fine, but then when the ball comes back to him with 12 seconds on the shot clock, rather than taking ownership of a late-clock, late-game possession, he just casually strolls into another double team, eventually passing the buck to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is moving away from the basket and is now forced to make a play against a dwindling clock. OKC ends up with a desperation heave from Dennis Schroder.
Again, you can argue both of Paul's passes on this possession were the "right play" as he was doubled teamed, but this is crunch time. He just has to be more aggressive in taking control of that possession. To be fair, SGA didn't do him any favors by coming to set that second ball screen. Watch again, and you'll see that Paul had Gordon one-on-one with the floor completely spread when he gets the ball back late in the clock.
Paul is one of the smartest players to ever play, and when he saw SGA coming up to set that pick, bringing a second defender into Paul's space, Paul should've waved him off and gone one-on-one with Gordon. Then if Robert Covington comes to double, he is leaving SGA alone in the corner for a wide-open shot. Or he could've rejected the screen and drove middle. Point is, there were myriad options on this play, and Paul, usually a master conductor, chose the worst one at the worst time.
Still, the Thunder wound up getting lucky as on the ensuing possession Gordon turned the ball right back over, succumbing to pressure backed up against the timeline. And Paul ends up with the ball again.
Paul's a bit out of control as he looks to make a play; he could've been called for a charge as James Harden appears to jump in his path and take the hit right in the chest. But there is no whistle and Paul ends up breaking free for a wide-open 10-footer to put OKC in the lead with under a minute to play. He leaves it short.
So far we're at three massive missed opportunities for Paul and the Thunder, but they kept getting defensive stops and still wound up down by one, with the ball in Paul's hands, with 16 seconds to play. If you would've told the Thunder they'd be in this position at the start of the season, they would've taken it a hundred times over. You couldn't ask for a better opportunity. You wouldn't want the ball in anyone's hands other than Paul, and he just flat-out blew the possession.
Let's break it down through Paul's eyes. As you'll see below, he's staring down the barrel of what is basically a 1-2-2 zone, with Covington extended high at the point and Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker at the elbows ready to pinch Paul's driving lanes or close out to shooters.
This is, admittedly, a tough layout to break down in the heat of the moment. Paul wants to penetrate a gap, preferably going right, and either force the defense to collapse so he can kick to a shooter, or even better, get all the way to the elbow for his sweet-spot midrange jumper. But again, Tucker and Westbrook are ready to squeeze off his lane as soon as he gets going downhill. He has to know it's going to be nearly impossible to get by Covington and into that little crack. That's what reading a defense is all about.
Though people love to malign players for "settling" for game-ending jumpers rather than attacking, against this particular defensive look, Paul's best bet was probably going to be to dribbling straight into a pull-up 3-pointer. If he would've gone hard at Covington with one or two dribbles, he likely would've retreated a few steps (he actually did anyway), and that's all it would have taken for Paul to get a clean look. And Paul is comfortable hitting that pull-up 3 from the top. In fact, you'll see in the clip below that he'd done it earlier in the game against basically the same exact defensive look, with Covington extended high and two helpers on each elbow:
That is a good, clean look, and it was right there for Paul to take again with the game on the line. Instead, he dribbled straight into Westbrook's area (very indecisively I might add) in what basically amounts to a panicked hope that Westbrook will come for a hard double so Paul can find SGA in the corner.
But Westbrook stays put, smartly, because Paul hasn't beaten Covington in the first place. And after all that, with the ball in his hands in the middle of the court staring at a set defense with all the time in the world to devise his plan, here's where he ends up:
From there, the play predictably breaks down, and OKC ends up with Lu Dort, the worst shooter on the floor (though he was having a monster night, to be fair) rushing a shot to beat the buzzer, only to have it blocked by Harden.
Listen, that's a great play by Harden, and yes, Dort had been having the game of his life with 30 points and six 3-pointers, but that possession belonged to Paul. You go down with your best player. He knows that. Even if he had drawn the double from Westbrook, that's a tough pass to make in a pinched spot on the short side of the court, and besides that, who do you want taking the game-winning shot: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Chris Paul?
The bottom line is Paul was uncharacteristically indecisive at the worst possible time, and as hard as it is to say, that was in keeping with Paul's entire crunch-time performance on Wednesday. Do the math, and he had the ball three times with a chance to either tie the game or put the Thunder in front, and those three possessions ended with a turnover, a missed 10-footer and a botched play that ended in a 3-point attempt by a guy who was shooting 18 percent from 3 for the series coming into the game.
What makes it worse, of course, is that Paul put the spotlight on his Game 6 crunch-time efforts -- which were brilliant, as they have been all season, in leading OKC to the victory that forced Game 7 -- by saying in his postgame interview: "When it gets to clutch time, fourth quarter, some people built for it, some people shy away from it."
The "some people shy away from it" part was seemingly a shot at Harden, who had his own crunch-time no-shows in this series (including one in this same Game 7) and who made it pretty clear last offseason that he didn't want to play with Paul anymore, which led to Paul being traded to OKC for Westbrook.
The "some people are built for it" part, of course, was a tip of Paul's own cap. And it was absolutely justified. Paul is one of the best point guards in history and he was historically great in clutch situations this season. But none of that matters now. When it came down to it, he had control of the offense with the game on the line and the Thunder scored six points over the final seven minutes of a Game 7. He simply didn't get it done. And he admitted it afterward.
"That's on me," Paul told reporters when asked about OKC's inability to score down the stretch. "On that last play I put Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] in a tough situation. We'd been playing with pace, seeking out Robert Covington. It's a tough one. We had our chances."
They certainly did. And Chris Paul simply didn't take advantage. As tough as that is to say.