It would have been easy for the Los Angeles Clippers to roll over when Kawhi Leonard went down with a knee injury that’s likely to end his run in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Leonard had been brilliant in carrying the Clippers out of an 0-2 hole to advance past the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and he was doing it again against the Utah Jazz in round two. After Utah won the first two games on their home floor, Leonard combined for 65 points across Game 3 and Game 4 to lead the Clippers a pair of wins that evened the series before sustaining what’s feared to be an ACL tear.
With the series headed back to Utah for a decisive Game 5, the Jazz were installed as a heavy favorite, laying seven points in most sports books. Teams that win Game 5 of a tied series go on to win that series 82 percent of the time. With their season on the line and their best player injured, the Clippers’ other superstar delivered the type of performance that had eluded him the last several postseasons. Paul George went off for an efficient 37 points, 16 rebounds, and five assists to lead the Clippers to a win. LA would advance after winning the next game, advancing to the Western Conference Finals and relying on George to give them a fighting chance.
The Clippers were in desperation mode again as they entered Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns, this time facing elimination with a 3-1 series deficit. George had been brutal in a tight Game 4 loss two days earlier, shooting 5-of-20 from the field as the Clippers fumbled so many chances down the stretch to tie the series. The Clippers needed George to play like a superstar again, and again George delivered.
George went off for 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and three steals to give the Clippers a 116-102 win that extends their season for at least one more game.
George scored 20 of his 30 second half points in the third quarter to stave off elimination. George wasn’t the only reason the Clippers won — Reggie Jackson turned in another incredible performance, and Marcus Morris’ shot-making was essential in the first half — but he was the engine that powered everything else around him.
George has been mocked relentlessly for his postseason performances since giving himself the nickname Playoff P ahead of the first round in 2018 when he was with the Thunder. The Thunder would lose the series and George was out-played by rookie Donovan Mitchell, and fairly or not, George was deemed someone who often shrank in the biggest moments.
That narrative should be buried forever now, because George has been nothing short of excellent in these playoffs so far.
George has been the Clippers’ iron man in the playoffs
While George has endured some cold shooting nights during the Clippers’ playoff run, he’s also been one of the NBA’s most reliable performers during this postseason in terms of both production and availability.
George has barely come off the floor since the Clippers entered the playoffs five weeks ago. He is averaging nearly 41 minutes per game while carrying a huge load for LA on both ends of the floor. George has looked visibly tired at times, and for good reason: he’s pushing his body to the limit during this postseason, and is still finding a way to shine.
Paul George now up to 735 minutes played in the playoffs. Next highest is Trae Young at 568.
— Justin Phan (@jphanned) June 29, 2021
George has kept attacking even on nights when his shot has been off. He’s scored 20 points or more in all 18 of the Clippers’ playoff games despite only cracking 50 percent shooting five times. His overall scoring efficiency is down just a tad from the regular season, with his true shooting percentage falling from 59.8 percent to 57.9 percent in the playoffs. His postseason efficiency is still above league average this year, and the fact that he’s doing it while playing so many minutes in Leonard’s absence and while also carrying a huge defensive burden makes it even more impressive.
George’s raw production puts him in elite historical company so far this postseason run.
This is what peak Paul George looks like
It wasn’t long ago that George was playing like one of the very best players in the world. George started the 2018-2019 season, his second with the Oklahoma City Thunder, on an absolute tear. He was deadly as an off-ball scorer playing next to Russell Westbrook, hitting 40.6 percent of his three-pointers on 9.5 attempts per game through the first half of the season. George was also playing elite perimeter defense and carrying the Thunder up the standings — they were 38-21 overall and third in the West — when he suffered a shoulder injury at the end the end of February.
George played injured through the season, but his shooting fell off and the Thunder’s season eventually ended on Damian Lillard’s epic buzzer-beater over George in the first round of the playoffs. George finished third in MVP voting and was named First Team All-Defense, but the way the season ended stuck with him. With the Thunder eliminated, George underwent rotator cuff surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder that cost him the start of the next season. While he was recovering, he was traded to the Clippers for a massive package headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first round picks, and two pick swaps.
George missed the first 11 games for the Clippers before making his debut, but his shoulder still never seemed fully healthy. As LA headed to the bubble, George struggled badly in the Clippers’ first round series victory against the Dallas Mavericks, admitting that he was a ‘dark place’ mentally.
“It was just a little bit of everything,” George said. “I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Just being locked in here. I just wasn’t there. I checked out.”
George has been through so much in the last few years that it was easy to forget he’s still one of the top players in the game. Now 31 years old, George seems happier and healthier this season while carrying the Clippers to their first conference finals berth in franchise history. Now they only need two more wins for a trip to the NBA Finals.
If there were ever any questions about George’s talent and toughness, there’s no doubt he’s answered them during this playoff run. Even when it isn’t already pretty, George is still capable of putting a team on his back late into the postseason like only a true superstar can.