The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't ready to leave the bubble just yet.
OKC defeated the Houston Rockets 104-100 in Monday's Game 6 of their first-round playoff series at Walt Disney World Resort and forced a Game 7 in the process. Chris Paul led the way with an impressive showing and, at least for the time being, prevented the Thunder from losing in the first round for a fourth consecutive season.
Paul was the veteran leader down the stretch and blew past Robert Covington to draw a foul before calmly hitting two free throws with 13.1 seconds remaining to give his team the lead for good. Russell Westbrook threw it away on the ensuing possession to all but end it.
As for the Rockets, a strong showing from James Harden was not enough to clinch a spot in the second round for the fourth straight year.
Notable Player Stats
- Chris Paul, G, OKC: 28 PTS, 7 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL
- Danilo Gallinari, F, OKC: 25 PTS, 5 REB, 2 STL
- James Harden, G, HOU: 32 PTS, 8 REB, 7 AST, 5 TO
- Robert Covington, F, HOU: 18 PTS, 5 REB, 5 STL, 3 BLK
- Russell Westbrook, G, HOU: 17 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 7 TO
Thunder Show Fight That Has Defined Their Season
It was fair to wonder if the Thunder were embracing a full-on rebuild when they traded Westbrook this offseason. Yes, the deal netted them Paul, but there was plenty of discussion assuming they would turn around and trade the veteran in an ensuing deal.
After all, Paul is a veteran who has never won a title and could go to a win-now situation, while OKC could have netted draft picks or young assets to facilitate a rebuild.
Instead, the team elected to keep Paul and eventually exceeded all reasonable expectations. Youngster Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took a significant step forward, and Danilo Gallinari served as a scoring threat with the guards finding him when defenders collapsed on their penetration.
Monday was a microcosm of the season, as it was reasonable to assume Houston would easily dispatch the Thunder after a blowout win in Game 5 and with Westbrook working back into the lineup.
That appeared to be the case when Houston built a nine-point lead in the third quarter, but OKC battled back and took the lead into the fourth behind back-to-back triples from the defensive specialist Luguentz Dort.
Gallinari found his stroke from deep, Gilgeous-Alexander drew defenders in with his explosiveness before facilitating and Paul was in control with an array of floaters, well-timed drives and quick passes.
The veteran leader outplayed Harden and Westbrook down the stretch as well, drilling back-to-back threes to tie the game with less than three minutes remaining, stripping Westbrook on an important possession down the stretch and making the clutch free throws.
As a result, the Thunder are still fighting.
Westbrook Still Working His Way Back, Comes Up Short
All eyes were on Westbrook entering the game from Houston's perspective since it was his second contest back from a quad injury.
He was nowhere near his typical self in Game 5 with seven points on 3-of-13 shooting, although the Rockets had enough firepower with Harden leading the way. Monday could have been all about Westbrook taking another step in the right direction before he and Harden pair up to battle LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the next round.
It seemed as if that would be the case when Harden made up for his lack of touch from the outside by attacking the basket and creating looks for himself and others before the supporting cast spearheaded a 10-0 run in the fourth.
Covington mixed in a three and putback, P.J. Tucker hit a three and Eric Gordon attacked the rim during the spurt that put the Rockets in position to win.
However, Paul stripped Westbrook on a key possession and the Rockets guard air-balled a mid-range pull-up all in the final 90 seconds. He also threw the ball out of bounds following Paul's winning free throws all while Harden watched without an opportunity to tie the game or take the lead.
It was a massive failure by the nine-time All-Star and a reminder Harden should be the one with the ball in his hands at crunch time until he is fully healthy.
The decisive Game 7 is Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.