Six down, one to go. After a back-and-forth Game 6 between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, Chris Paul nearly singlehandedly elevated his team to a 104-100 victory to force a Game 7. The Rockets and Thunder will play a winner take all matchup on Wednesday to determine who advances to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, and it's all thanks to Paul. Oklahoma City was the NBA's best clutch team during the regular season, and Paul's 14 fourth-quarter points were what elevated them in this one.
Houston, meanwhile, has to go back to their hotel ruminating on all of their missed opportunities to close this thing out. They led for most of the second half and got a strong 32-point performance out of James Harden. But Russell Westbrook hogged the ball in the final moments, and Houston couldn't put late-game points on the board. He was responsible for seven of Houston's 22 turnovers, and if he doesn't get his act together quickly, Houston's season is going to end abruptly on Wednesday.
Here are three key takeaways from Monday night's game.
1. This is the end of the 'Chris Paul can't win in the playoffs' narrative
The idea that Chris Paul was a choker based on a couple of bad playoff losses was always ridiculous. Statistically speaking, Paul has always been better in the playoffs than in the regular season, yet he gets blamed for losses he couldn't have prevented. Is it his fault that Josh Smith and Corey Brewer went on the greatest shooting binge of their lives? Paul had 31 points and 11 assists in that playoff game against Houston. Oklahoma City needed every one of his 28 tonight. They've needed his heroics all season.
The Thunder were the best clutch team in the NBA this season by both record and net rating. It wasn't close. That's par for the Chris Paul course. His teams are almost universally better in the clutch than they are over the course of games. Paul made his feelings on his two big 3-pointers quite clear: he lives for moments like that. Most players don't.
Chris Paul will probably retire without a championship ring one day. Nobody should care. There are very few players in the history of basketball who more consistently come up big when it matters most.
2. Houston lost the Russell Westbrook trade
Russell Westbrook turnovers are nothing new. His defensive lapses are the norm. His poor 3-point shooting has been a career-long trait. Houston knew all of this when it traded for him. They gave up a point guard in Paul who complimented James Harden perfectly to get him for a variety of debatable reasons, but one of the biggest, implicit as it may be, was a belief that Westbrook was fundamentally capable of changing as a player.
Again, they knew who they were getting. Nobody expected Westbrook to turn into Stephen Curry, and regular-season Westbrook, to his credit, cut out a lot of his bad habits. His shot-selection got better. He thrived without a center. But in the biggest moment of the season, Westbrook reverted to the worst possible version of himself. James Harden, former MVP, maybe the best scorer on Earth, took only one shot in the competitive portion of the final four minutes of the game. It was a stepback 3-pointer on an expiring shot clock. Westbrook monopolized the ball down the stretch, and Houston scored only two points in the final four minutes.
It wouldn't have even mattered if Westbrook had made his shots because he shouldn't have been taking them in the first place. Paul, one of history's great clutch scorers, understood that Harden needed to have the ball in his hands in the game's biggest moments. Westbrook, apparently, doesn't, and as long as he fails to grasp that simple reality, this trade will have been a loss for the Rockets.
3. Billy Donovan needs to accept what his best lineup is
The Thunder have been outscored by 50 points with Steven Adams on the floor in this series. He scored only six points on nine shots in Game 6 against a defense built to allow him easy dunks and layups. Meanwhile, the small-ball lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Lu Dort and Danilo Gallinari won them Games 3 and 4 in crunch time... yet despite having the best plus-minus of any Oklahoma City fivesome in this series (+10) it has only played 14 total minutes.
Steven Adams is a very valuable player... most of the time. This is the rare occasion in which his deficiencies as a somewhat traditional center render him obsolete. Paul bailed the Thunder out down the stretch, but this game easily could have been lost Adams' blocked dunk attempt late in the game. If he isn't going to score the easy points his size should grant, Oklahoma City needs to emphasize spacing and play Gallinari at center. It has worked in this series and it makes sense in this matchup. The Thunder are less talented than the Rockets. They can't afford to beat themselves with sub-optimal lineup choices.