We have seen the Clippers bounce back from numerous adverse situations throughout this postseason.
Down 2-0 to the Mavericks and then down 19 in the first quarter of Game 3. Facing an elimination game in Dallas in Game 6. Down 2-0, yet again, in the second round to the Jazz. Losing Kawhi Leonard before Game 5, and then trailing by 25 points in Game 6.
Their backs are against the wall once more in the conference finals. Without Leonard, without Serge Ibaka, and now without Ivica Zubac, it was fair to wonder if the Clippers had any punches left in them with the Suns in position to close out the series at home. But the Clippers keep swinging, and Paul George threw the biggest hit in Game 5 in what has to be the best performance of his playoff career.
George already had another game worthy of that designation just two weeks ago in Utah. But the team’s remaining star upped the ante, scoring a postseason career-high 41 points, and adding 13 rebounds and six assists. After struggling from the field in the first four games (42.3 percent on twos and 27.9 percent on threes), George was at peak efficiency, making 75 percent of his shots and all eight free throws.
George did what superstars do. It didn’t come as a surprise to himself or to his teammates. This is the player the Clippers expected when they brought him to Los Angeles.
“We know what Paul brings every night,” DeMarcus Cousins said postgame. “He’s going to play on both ends of the floor, he’s going to make the right play, and he’s unguardable.”
In previous games this postseason, George has set the tone early and then let Reggie Jackson or someone else take over at the end. The minutes load and responsibility that he shoulders has been taxing, so it’s understandable why George hasn’t been at his best later in games. But Marcus Morris Sr. and Jackson brought the scoring juice early, allowing George to pace himself.
Jackson helped the Clippers push the tempo, and Morris set up shop in the post, taking advantage of cross-matches in transition. The two combined for 25 first-quarter points, one less than the entire Suns team.
That led George get to work in the second. He did his best to get downhill, including a key bucket against Devin Booker to end a 12-0 Phoenix run. George ended the period with eight points and two assists, but he was just getting started.
The veteran wing said postgame that he felt like his legs were under him, and that came to fruition in the third quarter. The Clippers got off to a slow start in the half with only two points in the first three and half minutes as the Suns took their first lead of the game at 62-61. But George responded with seven of the team’s next 10 points to regain the lead. He drove to the cup, found room on the elbow when the basket was crowded, and bullied Mikal Bridges in the paint. George’s jumper finally came around, as he knocked down three triples in the period, two of them when he sent his defender flying in the wrong direction.
It was a superlative performance as he totaled 20 points in the quarter, becoming just the second Clipper to score that many in a postseason period — here’s looking at you, Terance Mann. The Clippers stretched a seven-point halftime lead to 13 by responding swiftly to Phoenix’s best push, and it was mostly thanks to George, who accounted for 23 points compared to 26 for the Suns.
He got the Clippers back on track in the fourth quarter after they sputtered a bit while he was on the bench. Even after his lowest moment, when he committed a frustration foul on Torrey Craig after not getting a call on the other end, resulting in a turnover, George found the composure to settle himself and the team. He got the Suns in the bonus with a rip-through move on Craig. On the next play, he drew help and swung it out to Nic Batum, who made one more pass to Jackson for the dagger three. That jumper, right in Booker’s face, allowed the Clippers to hit Lawler’s Law, and the lead only built from there.
“Just taking his time. Just being poised, letting the game come to him,” Ty Lue said about George’s performance. “I thought getting off to a good start early with Marcus really helped us out. We played through Marcus a little bit. We played through Reggie. PG was able to relax a little bit and kind of let the game come to him, and then down the stretch he took over the game.”
George has taken a lot of criticism since coming to the Western Conference about his playoff performances. Some of it is self-inflicted — calling Damian Lillard’s series-winner in 2019 a “bad shot” was something George probably shouldn’t have done — but the internet takes particular joy in coming down on him.
Everyone on the Clippers notices it, and they all mentioned the chatter after a game when George couldn’t have done more to shut up the doubters.
“I don’t know where this trolling bull---- has come from where the internet controls the narratives about these players,” Cousins said. “It’s becoming foolish, man. Like I said earlier in the year, that’s one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up. Give this dude his flowers, man. I don’t understand the slander. It’s becoming quite silly now.”
Lue echoed the sentiment when he said, “PG has been great for us all year. I just don’t understand why it’s magnified so much when he doesn’t play well, when he has a bad game. A lot of people play bad. I’m just happy he came back and played a great game. We needed every bit of it.”
In an ideal situation, George wouldn’t be in the position to lead this team and update his narrative. Leonard would be the alpha for the Clippers, and George would be an overqualified second banana. Instead, the spotlight on George has been magnified. And though he had every excuse not to perform with Clippers rotating players dropping like flies, he has met the moment.
It’s impossible not to respect what George did in Game 5 and what he has done in the seven games since Leonard got hurt. It isn’t always pretty, and the Clippers are still facing elimination yet again in Game 6, but George is fighting, and under his lead, his team is, too.
“I’m glad (PG) had the opportunity to be able to lead the team,” Morris said postgame. “We want Kawhi. We all love Kawhi. But I’m happy for him as a player to be able to lead the team and show everybody what he’s got because there’s always a lot of chatter about how he plays and the things he does. But no one really watches the day-to-day work that he puts in and the kind of teammate he is and the kind of player he is and how he is leading us. We’re dropping guys and he’s having 41-point damn near triple-doubles and averaging 17 rebounds and s--- like that. You have to give credit when it’s due. I’m happy that this guy is stepping up and I’m happy he has the opportunity to be able to lead the team.”
The stakes keep rising, and George’s performance has risen to meet them. He gets another chance to do the same on Wednesday.