OKLAHOMA CITY — It felt as if he was doing it again.
A reclining midrange jumper over the fingertips of a very tall defender, a pull-up 3 that hit all net, a clutch rebound in traffic, a heady strip-save that erased an easy layup.
Chris Paul has been the NBA’s clutch-time master this season, leading the league in points and field goals made in the final five minutes of regulation and overtimes of games within five points. He has found the right time to assert himself, to flip his own personal takeover switch.
But on Friday against the Miami Heat, the hill was too steep and the time too short, even for him.
The Heat won 115-108, building a 22-point lead and holding off a late charge by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Heat hit the halfway point of the season 29-12, second in the East, and continue to validate themselves as a capable contender. The Heat have a reputation for stability and were always seen to be a solid, playoff-caliber team.
But even after adding small forward Jimmy Butler in the summer, the Heat are better than even some of the loftier expectations for them. Most thought they were missing something: a second star, a secondary scorer, a playmaking point guard to engineer an offense.
There was a time where that player was thought, very obviously, to be Paul.
Jimmy Butler picks off Chris Paul and hits a trailing Meyers Leonard for the and-1 jam.
Instead, Paul stood across the hall in the Thunder locker room, a room filled with rare frustration fueled by another slow defensive start and a swollen deficit to try to overcome. Short answers, hushed conversations and bland “gotta figure it out” platitudes served as explanations.
Regardless, it has been an uplifting season for OKC, one of exceeded expectations where a home loss to a high-caliber team playing .700 basketball qualifies as disappointing. There was an assumption after the Thunder dismantled the top rung of a star-driven roster that they would struggle to crawl out of the cellar of the West, but they are a capable winner themselves at 23-19.
Trades are supposed to work for both sides. That’s the idea, anyway; it does not always work out like that. But in this scenario, at least at present, it’s a trade that didn’t happen that has become a win for everyone.
When the Thunder and Houston Rockets swapped Russell Westbrook for Paul (plus up to four first-round draft picks) in July, the Heat were lurking as either a mystery third-team suitor or possibly even as a thief to interrupt negotiations altogether with a head-to-head offer.
As Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated reported in December, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had “hoped the Thunder would add a third team, preferably the Miami Heat, where Paul could land on a playoff contender.”
Turns out, Paul did land on a playoff contender.
It was assumed the Thunder wanted to build the transaction into a three-team deal to move Paul along to Miami. But in reality, outside of the Heat sweetening the pot with high-value young talent, the Thunder always wanted to keep Paul. They valued his veteran presence on a young roster, his intelligence and, above all, his still-elite skill set. They had no reason to rush a trade. They felt Paul still had good basketball to play, and, alongside winning them some games, could increase his market at the same time. That has happened.
Even as recently as September, the Paul-to-Miami talks were said to be simmering, with the Heat still interested. Ahead of the season, the Heat were tempted by the idea of adding Paul to pair with Butler, but not at the expense of their emerging young talent such as power forward Bam Adebayo or lottery rookie shooting guard Tyler Herro. But they also could see where the season took them before acting impulsively on a deal. If it went bad, they could revisit and the Thunder would listen.
Miami was 13-5 entering December, boosted by the revelation of former G League player Kendrick Nunn, by former All-Star Goran Dragic surging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, by youngsters Adebayo, Herro and starting shooting guard Duncan Robinson energizing the roster.
“Everybody is comfortable, man. Everybody is whipping the ball around, sharing the basketball,” Butler said. “It’s so fun to play like that. So fun to play like that. But we’re a talented group. We’ve got some young guys, some older guys, that love playing with one another.”
And it was Nunn on Friday who played the inverted role of closer for the Heat, finishing with a team-high 22 points, 14 coming in the second half. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra confessed he would’ve liked the ball to find Butler a little more down the stretch, but Nunn is steady and hit an early dagger after Butler tipped out a rebound for an open 3 with 5 minutes, 41 seconds left to play.
“He just works,” Butler said of Nunn. “I feel like that’s where your confidence comes from, whether that’s on the defensive end when you’re working on schemes of everything, or it’s offensive end, getting in your bag, you’re working on shooting the ball, he’s constantly working on his game. He’ll be in this league for a while.”
Nunn has been an influential part of the Heat avoiding any regrets on passing up a deal, but trading for Paul didn’t make a lot of sense anyway for Miami’s future. It basically would have removed the Heat from the 2021 Giannis Antetokounmpo sweepstakes. Team president Pat Riley is always eager to at least have a seat at the table — unless, and the word “unless” is doing a lot of work here, Paul agreed to decline his $44.2 million player option in 2021-22. Maybe Paul would if it meant landing a marquee star to chase a title alongside. But someone actively deciding not to make $44 million is a hard thing to plan for.
Paul has revitalized himself as one of the elite floor generals in the game, but it has been more about the change in scenery than a second career wind. He’s back to running the game, controlling an offense and bending a team to his democratic offensive identity. The Heat play a motion-heavy game and Paul would’ve undoubtedly fit — because by nature, he inherently fits — but it would’ve come with concessions in other areas.
He has been sensational for the Thunder in a variety of ways beyond the ridiculous clutch play and general shepherding of the team. Paul is effectively an extra assistant coach, and is said to be invested and connected with his teammates and the coaching staff. He has embraced a mentorship role and played the part of good citizen.
Paul is a game-changer. He is 34, is owed a dump truck of money still, but he is also an excellent, winning player. Put him on a number of teams, Eastern Conference specifically, and he could swing the playoff pendulum. The Heat are happy with the core and their season — which they should be — but it’s not as if Paul wouldn’t make them better in a vacuum.
That’s the catch: There was always more than that to consider for the Heat then, and still now.