With Kawhi Leonard sidelined with an ACL injury, everyone rushed to their computers to rule out the Clippers in their series with the top-seeded Utah Jazz. Even though the series was tied 2-2, no one expected the Clippers to steal a game in Utah without Kawhi on the court. Much like my colleague Jon Helmkamp wrote yesterday, Paul George had a chance to lead his team to new heights... And George delivered.
PG-13 made a statement last night with 37 points, 16 boards, 5 assists and 2 blocks. A signature game that would earn most players praise and adoration, but instead the NBA world was silent. Although Serge Ibaka made sure to give George some props, and won the night with his PG apology form.
But everywhere else online, crickets chirped, and all who mocked Pandemic P for being unable to get out of Kawhi’s shadow were left speechless. Really, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the Clippers in these playoffs. Playoff P has yet to record a single game this season with less than 20 points while shooting at a 46/36/90 clip. Those are elite numbers, but the Pandemic P narrative was too fun for everyone to just give up on.
Well, now it’s time. It’s alright. We all make predictions that don’t pan out. None of us are perfect fortune-tellers, but if you keep holding onto Pandemic P, you’re just being stubborn. But why now, all of a sudden is Paul George returning to his pre-Clipper form? Simply put, he just needed the spotlight on him once more.
George became the face of the Indiana Pacers during the 2012-2013 season, when he earned his first All-Star nod, and led his team to the Eastern Conference finals, forcing a Game 7 against LeBron James and the eventual champions Miami Heat. In that series, George held his own against one of the toughest teams the league has ever seen, averaging 19.4 and shooting 47.5/44.1/77.1. You can try to say Lance Stephenson or Roy Hibbert was more vital to Indiana’s success in that series, but George was the face of that franchise. The weight was on his shoulders to lead the Pacers to the NBA Finals, and he did his part.
When George made the trip to Oklahoma City, he continued to put up elite numbers. He had trouble winning in the playoffs, but that was due to a lack of help in OKC outside of Russell Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony shot 21 percent from three in the series against the Jazz in 2018, and Westbrook shot 36 percent from the field in the 2019 playoffs. Through it all though, George was the only consistent force for the Thunder. I mean, the guy finished 3rd in MVP voting in 2019. He was a remarkable talent, and despite what Westbrook stans will have you think, George was the best player on those teams, and the biggest superstar in Oklahoma City.
When George is the leader of his team, he shows out. So, when he was traded to the Clippers prior to the 2020 season to be paired up with Leonard — a playoff legend fresh off bringing Toronto their first-ever NBA championship — George lost that leadership. He was no longer the guy everyone looked up to when the going got tough, and that’s why people started to forget how good he’d been his entire career.
George is meant to be the top scoring option in every offense he participates in. That’s when he shines. When he has to be the guy, he has almost always come through in his career. Kawhi Leonard robbed him of that with L.A. Leonard thrives in any team situation he finds himself in. With the Spurs, Leonard wasn’t the top offensive option when he won Finals MVP in 2014, yet thrived. When the Spurs needed Leonard to become the biggest threat on the court circa 2016, he was more than capable of filling that role as well. So, because of Leonard’s legacy after winning Finals MVP with Toronto, the entire sports world immediately forced the top-option role onto Leonard when he joined the Clippers, resting the weight of a cursed franchise onto his shoulders above everyone else’s. In reality, that burden should have been George’s to bear. Not because Leonard can’t handle it (we all know he can), but because Playoff P comes out in full force when thrust into that role. Paul George even said so himself!
I don’t expect Paul George to lead the Clippers to the NBA Finals without Leonard. If Chris Paul returns to the Suns for the Western Conference finals (this of course is assuming L.A. wins this series with the Jazz — let’s not get ahead of ourselves) and Kawhi is still sidelined, I fully expect Phoenix to wipe the floor with the Clippers, but hopefully if Leonard returns for these playoffs, the Clips and their fans will look to George more often. Much like Paul and Booker in Phoenix, Leonard can still be the face of the Clippers while allowing George to be the top option. That’s how the Clippers can dominate the remainder of these playoffs. Now let’s just pray Kawhi can get healthy enough to see it through.