Ever since that fateful day in 2018 when Paul George told the gathering of reporters in Oklahoma City that they hadn’t met “Playoff P” yet, he hasn’t been able to shake free of the jokes brought at his expense for playoff failures. With the Thunder, he and Russell Westbrook were unable to make it out of the first round in back-to-back seasons. That second season, in which Damian Lillard sent Oklahoma City home on a walk-off buzzer-beater and waved goodbye, to the dismantling of the team when George requested a trade to the Clippers to join up with Kawhi Leonard.
In the Bubble, George and Leonard both struggled, but because Kawhi’s reputation as a big game player had been cemented in Toronto, the majority of the blame and the jokes fell onto the surgically-repaired shoulders of George after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the conference semis. In the months that followed, George didn’t particularly endear himself with his commentary on what happened when he questioned how Doc Rivers used him, playing into those that believe he fails to appropriately take responsibility for his own shortcomings.
However, George also vowed to play this season “with vengeance,” eager to use everything said about him as fuel to get back to an All-NBA level of play. Through the first month of the season, George has more than done that, playing some of the best basketball of his career to help lead the Clippers to a 10-4 record, a mere half-game back of the Lakers for first in the West.
After a postseason marred by shooting woes from three-point range (33.3 percent in 13 games), George has come out scalding from deep, shooting 51 percent on eight attempts per game. He’s registered a true shooting percentage of 68.8 percent, a figure typically reserved for centers. This preposterous efficiency may not be sustainable, but the confidence with which he’s shooting the ball has to be encouraging for the Clippers.
What’s rather incredible is, to this point, it hasn’t really mattered how George has gotten his looks, he’s been hitting just about everything. After complaining this offseason about Rivers asking him to do too much catch-and-shoot, the star forward is hitting an absurd 57.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes (which account for 27.2 percent of his shot attempts on the season). On pull-ups, that percentage only dips to 47.8 percent, as he simply exists right now in a state of constant rhythm, no matter the situation.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 16, 2021
George has always been capable of terrific shooting — last season before the playoffs, he was a 42 percent three-point shooter — but he’s also taken a step forward thus far this season with his playmaking for others. He’s averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game, taking advantage of the Clippers’ revamped roster that provides significantly more spacing for he and Leonard (who leads the team with 5.9 assists per game). Surrounded by shooters like Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris Sr., a resurgent Nic Batum, and even Serge Ibaka, George and Leonard have more space to attack downhill and the weapons around them to punish teams for collapsing.
The Clippers’ offseason wasn’t one that drew a lot of attention, but Kennard and Ibaka are upgrades over Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell and they seem to have struck gold in Batum, who looks healthy and engaged in ways he wasn’t on Charlotte teams that were stuck in the mud. George has quickly grown trusting of his new teammates and the flow of the Clippers offense in the first 13 games of the season has generally been tremendous in Ty Lue’s first season. They’ve found the balance between taking advantage of George’s shooting abilities and his playmaking ones, allowing him to feel more involved in running the offense but also getting him plenty of spot-up opportunities.
What makes discussing the Clippers so difficult right now is that the questions that exist for them, and more specifically for George, exist in the postseason. Regardless of how good they are in the regular season, they’ll need to wait until the playoffs roll around to really answer the questions that surround their franchise. George has responded on the court to his playoff flop as well as one could ask, and the Clippers as a team certainly look the part of a top contender again, playing elite offensive basketball and steady defense. Unfortunately, George and the Clippers cannot begin to rewrite their story in earnest until the late spring and summer, when the ghosts of playoffs past and present arrive and must be dispatched of with a trip, at minimum, to the conference finals.
For now, though, George is playing some of the best basketball of his life and the fortitude to do that after everything that happened in Orlando shouldn’t be discounted. He’s playing All-NBA caliber basketball and making a statement in the process, it’s just one that must be verified later on.