Our colleagues at The Ringer have produced a series of videos about moments which have defined the NBA season. Yesterday, The Ringer released a video about the Thunder’s overtime victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves. That game is one of the most entertaining games I have ever watched and the Thunder’s win came from Chris Paul’s deep knowledge of the game. Paul’s understanding of officiating in the NBA resulted in a technical free throw that set up a thrilling conclusion to the end of regulation.
It was a game that the Thunder expected to win, the Timberwolves were in the midst of an extended period of losing. The Wolves seemingly could not put together forty eight minutes of good basketball that would resulted in a win. During the period, Karl Anthony Towns cut a dispirited figure, Towns looked deeply unhappy in Minnesota and was crying out for help. The odds were further stacked in the Thunder’s favour, Andrew Wiggins, a noted Thunder-Killer, was ruled out due to injury. The already thin T-Wolves would be without twenty four points a night, a significant void in the offence which would need to be filled. While the Thunder did not have Terrance Ferguson available, it was not a significant loss, Abdel Nader stepped into the starting lineup.
The game was an instant classic, there was not much focus on playing defence but both teams went bucket for bucket with each other. The Timberwolves put together a fine shooting performance which paced their offence, Karl Anthony Towns demonstrated the full capabilities of his arsenal. Towns scored inside and outside as he knocked five threes on efficient shooting. Oklahoma City relied on their veteran instincts to maintain the offensive production, every single starter took advantage of the Timberwolves’ youth and drew fouls at a productive basis. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a beneficiary of the over zealous defence as he made twelve free throws, these free throws made his efficient scoring night even better.
As a fan, I was really worried about the Thunder’s inability to put the game away. Oklahoma City gave up a ten point lead in the fourth quarter and the defence did not lock in at all. The Thunder were leaking points all over the shop and could not secure the victory. It meant that the game went down to the closing moments with the Timberwolves being two points up with 1.1 seconds left on the clock. I was disgusted with OKC, the team had pissed away a winnable game before the Thunder went on a difficult run of games at the start of December. Oklahoma City had also seemingly wasted a fine game played by Chris Paul.
On that night, Chris Paul looked every bit of the ‘Point God’ that he was. Chris Paul has been one of the best guards in the league for more than a decade and has long been considered to be a top-five point guard of all time. That is elite company when you consider that this grouping usually includes players like John Stockton, Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson. All three players were position-defining players, they changed the perception of the point guard spot. Paul displayed why he receives such high acclaim against the Timberwolves as he had thirty points, seven assists and four rebounds. It was the typical Paul game as he found his team-mates in good spots and knocked down jumpers with unfailing precision.
However, Oklahoma City were in an unfavourable position with 1.1 seconds left on the clock. The score stood 121-119 and Minnesota had the opportunity to extend their lead to a two-possession game providing that Karl Anthony Towns knocked down both of his free throws. Towns is an 80% free throw-shooter, it is reasonable assumption that he makes both and the game is done. However, Ryan Saunders chose not to take any unnecessary risks. He wanted another solid defender and rebounder on the floor so he subbed in Jordan Bell. As Bell prepared himself, Towns missed the first free throw. An arena which was previously subdued had a kernel of hope to cling onto, there was a buzz among the crowd again.
Bell’s rush to get into the game meant that he made a cardinal mistake. Jordan Bell checked into the game with an untucked jersey, a fault which results in a delay of game. This violation is usually ignored by the referees, it rarely materially affects the game so the fault is allowed to slide. The brilliance of Chris Paul is that he knows the rulebook inside out and he fully understand the situation at hand. Paul’s situational awareness is impressive especially during pressure moment where the game hangs in the balance. Chris knew that Minnesota had incurred a delay of game earlier in the contest, Towns had taken too long to check into the game in the third quarter. A second delay of game would result in a technical free throw, a shot which would bring the deficit within touching distance. Bell’s little mistake gave Paul an opportunity to win the game and he took it. Paul lobbied Scott Foster and called for a technical foul, his voice audible over the din of the crowd.
Paul and Foster have a long history with each other. Paul feels that Foster’s manner and standard of officiating is inconsistent. The feud came to a head during Paul’s time as Rocket, Chris went to the media stating that he felt that Scott Foster had a personal problem with him. It is an acrimonious relationship to say the least but in this example, Foster agreed with Paul and called a technical foul. Oklahoma City would receive a free throw. Danilo Gallinari stepped up to the task and coolly knocked down the foul shot, the Thunder were down by just one. Winning or getting the game into overtime was a real possibility.
Karl Anthony Towns wanted to miss the second free throw, the intentional miss would drain time off the game clock. Oklahoma City would not be able to get a heave off if the Thunder were scrabbling around for a rebound. The free throw attempt bounced off the back rim before eventually dropping. The Timberwolves sprinted back into defensive positioning, ready for a last second attempt from the Thunder. Adams was the inbounder of the ball, this choice made plenty of sense. Adams has displayed an ability to launch the ball across the full length of the court, you might even be able to say that the Adams Family is blessed with this ability. Steven’s sister, Valerie Adams, is an Olympic Gold Medallist in shot-put, a discipline which involves throwing a heavy ball across a long distance.
During the technical free throw, Adams briefly discussed the Hail Mary with Dennis Schroder, his intended target. Schroder made his route known and trusted Adams to quarterback the offence. As Adams prepared to inbound the ball, Schroder was already speeding across half-court, Jeff Teague chased after the German in vain. Steven threw a touchdown that Aaron Rodgers would be proud of, the ball hung and twisted in the air before it eventually started to drop into the path of Dennis Schroder. Schroder has shed his defender and was in a brilliant position to complete the play. Schroder caught the pass and laid the ball into the hoop, the game would go to OT.
The Thunder commentary team were astounded, they simply could not believe that Oklahoma City had got the game to overtime. If I am honest, I could not believe it, I was just elated that Oklahoma City had a chance to win the game. The Timberwolves’ spirit was broken and it was easy pickings for the Thunder from that point onwards. OKC outscored Minnesota 17-5 to secure a definitive win in overtime, it was another solid victory despite the poor defence.
I loved watching the game and it is the first time where I thought that the Thunder would make the play-offs. There was something about this Thunder which was re-assuring. Paul’s ability as a closer was always trusted but the grittiness of the win impressed me, Oklahoma City did not get down about previous mistakes and dug deep to pull out a victory. While the Thunder have been in the ascendancy, Minnesota have fallen apart. The T-Wolves face another trip to the lottery and have acquired D’Angelo Russell to stem the bleeding. Russell will provide play-making from the point guard spot and a friend for KAT, a factor which could be influential in keeping Towns in Minnesota.