The Oklahoma City Thunder have shocked the NBA by still being part of the playoff conversation, even after trading their two best players in Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Standing at a respectable 25-19 on the season, the team led by veteran dime maestro Chris Paul is sitting pretty in seventh place in the West, now within striking range of the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets at only two games back after Monday’s 112-107 comeback win — grabbing a 2-1 series lead in the process.
This latest comeback win from 16 points down entering the fourth quarter could become crucial in the latter stages of the season, as it represents the tiebreaker that would give the Thunder the edge should they jostle for playoff position with the Rockets in April.
The Thunder have had a knack for coming from behind and snatching wins, doing so 12 times when trailing entering the fourth quarter. That alone accounts for almost half of their wins on the season — a sign that the Thunder have saved their real firepower for when it counts the most:
Thunder: 12th comeback win this season when trailing entering the 4th quarter (5 more than any other team). The 16-point deficit was the largest they've overcome this season.
Rockets: only team in NBA this season to blow multiple 15-point leads entering the 4th quarter. pic.twitter.com/IqqYuHm6RX
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 21, 2020
Earlier this season, the Thunder came back from down 26 points against the Chicago Bulls, and then the very next game they erased a 24-point deficit against the Memphis Grizzlies, showing exactly why they’re the comeback kings of the NBA.
The three-guard lineup of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder has been a three-headed beast for teams to deal with — challenging even the Rockets, a team that prides itself on its switch-heavy defense.
While SGA leads the team in scoring, bordering on 20 points per game, Schröder (18.3 points, 3.8 assists) and Paul (17.0 points, 6.4 assists) are close behind.
The Thunder have found a way to still play fast without resorting to Westbrook’s demonic end-to-end runs. They push the pace with quicker, shiftier guard like Schröder and Gilgeous-Alexander, while Paul gives that measured, calculating breathability, able to pick apart defenses in the half court and get shooters involved.
Paul’s mastery of the half-court game is no secret, but his veteran savvy, ruggedness, and all-around intellect has proved to be a key ingredient for a team that was thought to undergo full rebuild mode.
OKC has 4.5 games of separation with the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, making the Rockets (sixth) and the Dallas Mavericks (fifth) their direct and realistic competition. The Paul-led Thunder have proved to have the heart of a lion and always be in line to win a game, no matter how long they’ve trailed.
So long as they keep that knack for lighting teams up in the fourth quarter, they should find themselves playing ball for longer than most expected.