OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Chris Paul gets annoyed when the topic of the Thunder’s “surprising” success comes up.
Expectations for Oklahoma City were low for many after an offseason during which the Thunder collected draft picks, traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Paul and sent Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.
Many weren’t sure if Oklahoma City’s new players would function well together — or if the group would stay together.
It also wasn’t clear if Paul could perform at an elite level at age 34, or if he could stay healthy. But Paul has embraced what appeared to be an undesirable situation and was named an All-Star for the 10th time. The Thunder not only stayed intact but come out of the All-Star break sixth in the Western Conference and firmly in the playoff race.
Asked what skeptics might have missed when projecting Oklahoma City to be one of the worst teams in the league, Paul bluntly said, “That I was here.”
Paul also isn’t satisfied with Oklahoma City’s 33-22 record going into Friday’s home game against Denver.
“I expected the record to be better, you know what I mean?” he said. “I expect to win every night. I’m not as surprised as y’all are, I guess. I’m just not.”
He missed being that clutch player while deferring to James Harden in Houston. Now that he’s the man again, he earned his way to being named an All-Star for the first time since 2016.
“That’s why you play these games,” Paul said. “For that adrenaline.”
Paul immediately established himself as a leader. He had the team fitted for custom suits, and before a December game against Memphis, the players walked into Chesapeake Energy Arena wearing them. The Thunder overcame a 24-point deficit that night to win 126-122.
Paul’s team-building efforts have carried over onto the court.
“He’s one of the top point guards to ever play this game,” Thunder guard Dennis Schroder said. “He changed the culture here as well — how we’re playing together as a team. He’s talking to every one of us every time during games, practices. Even if you’re off the court, he talks to us. A leader in this group.”
In some ways, Paul’s 15th season has been one of his best. He is shooting 55% on 2-point shots, the highest mark of his career. He is shooting 89.8% from the free-throw line, which would be his second-highest percentage for a season. He averages 17.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game.
“I think it speaks to him from the standpoint of just how diligent he is and how driven and motivated he is to try to get every once out of his own ability, from dieting to training to working out to shooting,” coach Billy Donovan said.
Paul kept rolling by posting 23 points and six assists in the All-Star Game. He wasn’t chosen as a starter, but Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel had him in at the end.
“It’s about working hard, and it’s the analytics and the statistics that say at this age you can do this or you can do that — look at my brother Bron (LeBron James),” Paul said after the game. “Every year, they say he’s going to slow down, right? And then what? So I think it’s more about competing with yourself and not worry about what everybody else is saying.”
For as much as Paul’s play has stood out, he’s happy to see others succeeding. He loves the fact that the Thunder don’t really have a standout player. Gilgeous-Alexander is a rising star in his second year, averaging 19.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Gallinari, a veteran forward, is averaging 19.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. Schroder is averaging 19.3 points and 4.0 assists and is a top contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Steven Adams is averaging 10.7 points and 9.3 rebounds.
“They probably, other than Memphis, they have probably been the most surprising team in the league,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “They just have a way of hanging in games and closing them. They’ve got guys like (Danilo) Gallinari, Chris Paul, and (Dennis) Schroder — all of those guys have been in positions where they’ve closed games, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Paul likes it that way.
“Everything is by committee,” he said. “I think our coaches do a great job of engaging us. We’ve just got a really great group of guys. Obviously, winning games helps that.”
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