It’s hard to tell whether Paul George is struggling or thriving when he’s playing, one of the smoothest swingmen in a bubble or a raucous arena.
One of the reasons he’s the perfect No. 2 to Kawhi Leonard is his ability to seamlessly go from facilitator to dominator without much of a change to his demeanor, with no need to send out the bat signal — when he’s at his best.
But the call is out for “Playoff P” to find his game for the Los Angeles Clippers, and to do it fast. It’s not that the Clippers are in any danger of being upended by the Dallas Mavericks; Luka Doncic’s ankle injury appears to have a significant impact on his game after shredding the Clippers defense, thus halting their chances for an upset.
His struggles have given confirmation bias to those who not only feel George can’t be a primetime player on a championship team but also the Clippers’ worthiness of contender status.
This season has largely been a chemistry experiment where everyone has been focused on the long game of winning it all by staying healthy. Developing synergy and continuity is tough to establish when the Clippers only had their full rotation of players for eight games (7-1 record), even before the pandemic hit.
It’s not quite a deal with the devil, but everyone involved knows the delicate balance the Clippers must walk to maximize all the disparate parts in what’s a winnable quest for a title.
George, perhaps even more than Leonard, seems more like a litmus test. Leonard isn’t a soloist, not in a traditional sense. But he will operate well regardless of the circumstances.
He’ll get buckets the same way, he’ll play airtight defense and show his rapid improvement as a playmaker by hitting the open man with relative ease.
Leonard is living up to his big-game credentials so far, averaging 33.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
It’s George who doesn’t have the unassailable résumé, shooting just seven for 33 from the field and missing 15 of his 18 3-point attempts over his last two games. George doesn’t wear the look of frustration, although he isn’t as robotic as Leonard.
"I'm no James Harden. That’s not my knack,” said George, referencing Harden’s offense first, offense-only reputation. "To just shoot the ball, score the ball. I can and I pride myself on being effective on both ends. But there's going to be nights like this where I just can't make a shot, and I can't allow that to affect my game.”
“I’m no James Harden...That’s not my knack, to shoot the ball to score the ball...And I pride myself to be effective on both ends.”— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) August 22, 2020
Paul George, when asked about his recent struggles and ability to do other things than score. pic.twitter.com/vC1eHDBOvG
Unnecessary shot at Harden aside, they both share playoff reputations that belie their regular-season exploits. And truthful as his comment may have been, he’s worth more to the Clippers than just the intangibles. George isn’t there to be Andre Roberson, and he knows the personal expectations around his performance, the derision around his nickname “Playoff P” can go by the wayside with the “Kobe stopper” or “Jordan stopper” should he come up short.
He only gave a hint through social media after the Clippers absorbed a 40-piece from Doncic that he at least hears the doubters, but can’t let that affect his approach.
At his best, George can be Pippen-like: disruptive on defense, unselfish on offense and the perfect wingman to Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP and player who implored the Clippers on emptying the house to acquire him.
Underqualified No. 1, overqualified No. 2, an ideal situation for George. Being a top 3 MVP finisher last season resonated more than those who saw Damian Lillard hit a ridiculous series-ending triple in his face to end Oklahoma City’s season.
“We’re confident,” Leonard said following the Clippers’ Game 3 win over Dallas on Friday night. “It’s gonna turn around for him. We got his back.”
“We got his back.”— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) August 22, 2020
Kawhi on Paul George. pic.twitter.com/Tcf9tJgwnC
Although he can blend in like one of the guys, George can’t be deployed that way for the Clippers to overtake the Lakers assuming both sides meet in the West Finals.
There are countless Clippers who won’t say no to easy calories if George is less than stellar, plenty of guys who have no qualms creating shots for themselves at the expense of keeping the team in rhythm. Lou Williams, wing-in-hand, is always ready. Montrezl Harrell comes off the bench in attack mode. New additions Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris are naturally aggressive, while still finding their way.
Assuming Patrick Beverley makes it back healthy, he’s a willing defender and dependable spot shooter, but isn’t a traditional floor general. George lining up as a consistent second scorer creates a natural order for the way this team is put together and limits the randomness that can doom the Clippers in an evenly-matched playoff series.
He facilitates and presumably, lessens the appetite for these other capable scorers to do too much.
On paper, this is the ideal situation for George so long as he plays it perfectly without trying to play perfectly.
The call is out for “Playoff P,” hoping Paul George shows up.
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