Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up, what if Paul George was the same shooter in the regular season as the postseason?
Paul George can do it all on the hardwood. He can cross guys over for a pull-up mid-range shot, size up against smaller players for an easy bucket in the paint, and put fans on their feet with his ferocious dunks. And the cherry on top? His 3-point game — the 12-year superstar converted on 41.1 percent of his 3-point attempts in the 2020-21 regular season. That, however, dropped to 33.6 percent when it mattered the most in the playoffs.
And that seems to be the only flaw to what seems like his impeccable game — and a flaw that gets exorbitant attention. There is no denying that George has been and still is one of the league’s best players: his personal accolades (a seven-time NBA All-Star, a six-time member of the All-NBA Team, and a four-time member of the NBA All-Defensive Team) attest to this. Still, some have yet to take their minds off of his underwhelming performance in the bubble, and the ‘Pandemic P’ jokes follow every bad game of his. Just recently, he was considerably undervalued and given a low NBA 2K rating of 88. Although such an overly critical perspective shouldn’t be taken too seriously, there is some truth that underlies their argument.
He and his 3-point shot have disappeared one too many times in the playoffs — and subsequently his hometown team’s title chances.
But what if he shot in the playoffs not necessarily better but just as well from three as he did in his 54 regular-season games? We’ll never know for a fact, but the stats tell a compelling story. In the seven playoff games last year that he did find his rhythm from deep (over 40 percent), he averaged close to 30 points, five assists, and eight rebounds — and an average plus-minus of close to 13 points to go with it. When less than 40 percent of his threes were falling, he was no longer as big of an offensive threat, averaging five fewer points.
A higher 3-point percentage doesn’t just mean an improved field goal percentage and more averaged points for George — it’s the gateway to the Paul George that went head-to-head against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals or the Paul George that finished third in MVP voting — and perhaps the Paul George that can lead the Clippers to their first championship.
When his long-range shot is falling, defenders are kept on their toes for the duration of the game with the threat of George pulling up for a three cemented in the back of their heads. The defender will step up close to George in the hopes of preventing a three; in turn, George will more easily blow by defenders and get to the close-range shots (he shot 62.1 percent from within four feet in last year’s playoffs) or score with a crafty finish.
If a secondary defender crashes on him, he would be able to kick the ball out to a perimeter shooter or find an athletic big in the paint for an easier, more open look. In five of the six playoff games that he had the biggest impact on the team’s success (a plus-minus of at least plus-14), he shot over 40 percent from three.
Most importantly, cashing in on more threes would help George restore his confidence. When a couple of PG’s three-pointers find the bottom of net, he seems to be more confident with the ball. He uses his agility, length, and shot-creating abilities to propel the Clipper ship forward.
In Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, one of his best playoff performances as a Clipper, George took over after making two consecutive 3-point attempts in the third quarter. He gracefully handled his way into the mid-range, took step-back jumpshots, and drained them in front of heavy defensive pressure and hostile Suns fans. He looked unstoppable, finishing the game with 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and three steals.
Now, the playoffs are many months away (as a matter of fact, the grueling regular season hasn’t even started). But a solution to George’s playoff problem might be found in the 82 games that lie ahead of him.
For the first time in his Clipper career, George will have to be the first option for the majority, if not the entirety, of the regular season. Night in and night out, he will be matched up against the opposing team’s best defenders and opposing defensive schemes will be built around the core theme of slowing down the 31-year-old superstar. And he will be asked to deliver for the Clippers every game much like in the Playoffs.
So, these 82 games will be the puzzle pieces that, if collected and put together successfully, complete the Paul George puzzle — and perhaps the Clippers championship puzzle as well.