The Bubble OKC Thunder

The year was 2020, and the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Houston Rockets in the bubble. The Happiest Place on Earth was suddenly a lot more content in a sorrowful time because it meant the return of NBA basketball back into our lives.

The Thunder were run off the floor in the series’ first two games. But, despite their rough start, they could fight back and make the series 3-3 to force a Game 7.

The Thunder, unfortunately, fell short in an intense Game 7. Crazy things happened throughout the game. Lu Dort, a then 29% 3-pointer shooter, knocked down 6 of 12 3s. James Harden played defense very late to block Dort’s go-ahead 3-point attempt. And Chris Paul missed a crucial and absolute bunny to put the Thunder up 1 with under 45 seconds remaining.

As he missed the shot, we knew, and he knew, that was likely the game.

“I had a floater right there in the middle of the lane that would have put us up 1.” Chris Paul lamented postgame. “I said (to the team), ‘Just keep it close, and we’ll finish it.’ That’s on me.”

Chris Paul was outstanding that season. Led a team with a .2% chance at the postseason and carried them to a five seed. He was fifth in MVP voting and led the NBA in points in the clutch. It makes you wonder what it would have looked like if he had someone he could rely on in those moments. Someone, possibly, on both sides of the court. What might that have looked like?

Today, we see a Thunder team with a similar dominance in late games. In the clutch this season, this team boasts the highest field goal percentage (53.7%), the highest offensive rating (129.6), and the second-highest net rating (23.4).

And unlike that team in 2020 that lived and died off the performance of Paul, it’s three different guys affecting the game in various ways.

MVP Shai

First, you have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The head of the snake on offense, a perennial MVP candidate, and one of the most unguardable players in the entire league, he is widely regarded as one of the most clutch shot-makers in the world. He is 10th in clutch points (70) and field goal percentage (61), which is phenomenal in and of itself.

However, much like most of the discourse around Shai this year, the offense doesn’t tell you the whole story. Shai is also tied for second in the league in steals made in the clutch (five). He emphasized his defense over the offseason, leading the league in steals by a wide margin. And that reflects in late-game situations as well.

Chet Holmgren

Then you have Chet Holmgren. A rookie who defied every expectation and impacted a team in the play-in game just last year is running for Rookie of the Year, a borderline All-Star. It is already one of the best rim protectors in the game. He, to a lesser but still impressive degree, is 29th in clutch FG percentage (53.6), which is still great for a third option on offense, and he’s already had a couple of clutch moments on offense this year.

But much like Shai, it’s the defense where his impact is mainly felt. Chet is currently fourth in blocks per game (2.6) and 3rd in total blocks (111), which has also trickled into the clutch. Chet now leads the league in clutch time blocks with 9; that’s a whole two blocks more than the 2nd highest, which, interestingly enough, is his rookie counterpart Victor Wembanyama, who has 7. Late in the game, teams look for the best shots they can get, and there is no better look than at the rim unless Chet is there, and then you should probably look elsewhere.

Dub Time In Crunch Time

Last but not least, we have Jalen Williams. Jalen Williams usually runs the offense at the beginning of most 4th quarters. He has been fantastic in the fourth quarter when Shai sits. 

Williams leads the NBA in field goal percentage in the clutch, knocking down a red-hot 81.3%. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t far behind, knocking down 61.5% of his clutch time attempts, which is good for No. 10. Holmgren is also in the top 30 at 53.6%

In its early conception, the Thunder relied on Kevin Durant; in 2016-17, the Thunder relied on Russell Westbrook; in 2020, the Thunder relied on Paul. And in the years before this one, the Thunder relied solely on Gilgeous-Alexander. 

It’s not a one-person band in OKC for the first time in forever. It’s not Shai against the world. The Thunder have carefully handpicked, homegrown, and developed three players at different positions who have a killer mentality, buy-in on both sides of the ball, are unselfish and aren’t afraid of the moment.

The Thunder are no longer a one-player show in the clutch. They are a tag team.