We all know that Kawhi Leonard can get to his spots essentially whenever he wants to and be the most dominant 1-on-1 player in the league. His superiority is unquestioned. But the Clippers’ other superstar has been a bit less steady over the course of the season. On Thursday, even though the Clippers didn’t win, Paul George showed that the Lakers have no answers for him.
George didn’t play in the opening night win against the Lakers, as he was still recovering from his shoulder surgeries during the offseason. He struggled in the Christmas matchup, shooting 5-of-18 from the field, including 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. The tide turned in March, however, as George finally had his legs underneath him.
In the last pre-shutdown matchup, George was the Clippers’ best player with 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He was aggressive from the get-go, exploiting his size advantage over whichever guard the Lakers threw at him, be it Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or Alex Caruso. Even strong perimeter defenders like Green and Caruso are essentially hopeless against George when he gets going, because he towers over them with his 6’8 frame. That means he can shoot over a contest, he can make see every pass out of the pick-and-roll, and he can overpower most defenders to the hoop.
That version of George was present again on Thursday, an unstoppable individual offensive force. Short of some foul trouble — the officiating really took the rhythm out of the game — George was able to score at will against the Lakers, who were the third-best defense in the league (per Cleaning the Glass) before the hiatus.
George finished with a team-high 30 points in the seeding game opener, with an absurd 80% true-shooting percentage. He hit six 3-pointers, added five rebounds, three assists, and three steals, and hit the game-tying 3-pointer before just missing on the potential game-winner.
“We drew up that play two-for-one. Got a three out of him, it was just great shooting,” head coach Doc Rivers said postgame about George’s final make. “He was great. I thought the turnovers hurt us a little bit, but overall I loved the way PG played.”
George had the complete offensive package going against the Lakers. He started the game working out of the pick-and-roll with Ivica Zubac and getting to the hoop for an easy bank shot. He continued to generate action going to the basket in the first quarter, which opened up the threat of his stepback jumper throughout. Even for a DPOY-worthy defender like Anthony Davis, it’s impossible to contend with George’s drive game and his jumpers all at once.
George’s spacing is critical in this matchup, because the Lakers build their defense from the paint outwards. They start a deliberately big lineup to deter opponents from getting to the rim, but that can leave them vulnerable to outside shooting. George’s 3-point threat helps to open up the lane for his teammates.
It’s also important that George shows out against the Lakers because they only have one defender who can slow him down in LeBron James. However, James is more often occupied guarding Leonard, which means George has to exploit the other perimeter players who lack the size and guile to effectively contain him.
As Rivers noted, the turnovers were an issue for George, though his ball-handling responsibilities will be more limited when Patrick Beverley is at full strength and Lou Williams is available. However, this was a thorough offensive performance from the Clippers’ second-best player. He took advantage of the gaps in the defense, applied pressure, and didn’t settle for tough looks.
The Clippers didn’t lose this game because Leonard and George underachieved. They were in this game because Leonard and George played like stars; they just needed a little help, and those reinforcements will be on their way soon. It’s been an inconsistent season for George, but he has come up big against the Lakers — the projected Western Conference Finals foe — in two consecutive games. After Thursday’s game, there’s no reason to believe the Lakers have figured out a way to stop him.