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Paul George’s Growth is Key for the Clippers

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For whatever reason, the NBA media and fan landscape haven’t been too kind to Paul George over the past couple of seasons.

He’s been given an unfair label of being a poor playoff performer among other things, but as he enters his third season with the Los Angeles Clippers, he’s done more than enough to silence those critics.

During the bubble playoffs in 2020, the Clippers had an unceremonious exit in the second round after blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets. George notably did not shoot particularly well, but nobody on the team did.

Throughout the 2020 postseason, in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks and then against the Nuggets, George did a great job with doing everything else. He was rebounding the ball, he was playing tough perimeter defense, and most importantly, he kept the ball moving and worked to get others involved.

That’s probably been the biggest part in George’s growth since he came to the Clippers is his playmaking. He’s used to having the ball in his hands throughout his career. He’s been a double-digit scorer for the majority of his career, including his years with the Indiana Pacers when he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

But since he’s been a Clipper, his role with the ball in his hands has changed a bit. He’s been asked to become more of a facilitator and even play point guard at times. Throughout much of last season, he and Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue often talked about the adjustment it has been for George to settle into a playmaking role.

Last season, George averaged a career-high 5.2 assists per game but that also came along with 3.3 turnovers per game. This season, through the Clippers first two games, George is dishing out 5.0 assists while his turnovers remain at 3.0. He knows that this season, especially with Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely, he’s going to shoulder a little bit more of the load and that his role may change on a game-to-game basis.

“Every night is different. There’s going to be nights where I have to pass and get guys shots,” George told media after Saturday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. “The longer the season goes on, the game is going to play out a little differently. It’s not all about scoring. I’m happy to do different things.”

That’s not to say George can’t still be the explosive scorer he once was in Indiana. Going back to last season’s playoffs, this might be one of the best offensive stretches of George’s career. During the 2021 postseason, George put up 26.9 points per game, 9.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists, the latter two being career-highs.

After Leonard went down with an injury after Game 4 in the second round against the Utah Jazz, George upped his scoring to 30 points per game. He had 37 on 54.5 percent shooting in Game 5 on the road as the Clippers took the series lead. He had 41 in the Western Conference Finals on the road in Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns to hold off elimination and force the series back to Los Angeles.

And this season, he’s started out on a similar tear. He had 29 points on 52.2 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range on opening night against the Golden State Warriors. He followed that up with a 41 point outburst against the Grizzlies on 60 percent shooting and 41.7 percent from three-point range.

After the Warriors game, despite the loss, Lue was pleased with what he saw from his superstar, especially when it came to making Stephen Curry work on the defensive end.

“I thought Paul was really good. I thought he did a good job of taking what the defense gave him,” Lue said. “We put Steph into pick and rolls. . .and he made good passes to [Eric] Bledsoe and T-Mann, we just didn’t make shots. . .I thought we did a good job of just trying to execute.”

Against the Grizzlies, George was able to get into a rhythm early on. He got to his spots on the court and he did a good job rising up and shooting over the Grizzlies smaller wings. In the fourth quarter, he hit some big shots to keep the game close and give the Clippers a chance to win.

According to George, he’s feeling good. His 41 point game is something he knows he’s capable of replicating on any given night.

“I’m just going to play hard. That’s all I can control, and I think that playing hard, that’s what you’re going to get out of me on a nightly basis,” George said. “Like I said before coming into the season, I’m having fun. I’m at peace and I’m having fun and I’m playing hard. Whatever the results are, that’s the results, but I’m playing to win every possession.

While the offense has looked decent at times for George and the Clippers during the first two games, the defense has been shaky against both the Warriors and the Grizzlies. The Clippers have good defenders on the team, including George, and George knows that needs to improve for the Clippers to get in the win column in this early part of the season.

“I still think the emphasis needs to be, ‘get back.’ With these fast teams, we just got to get back. I think we’re still getting out of preseason mode,” George said. “We got to start to find our way and figure it out. . .We just got to dial in on that and getting back, getting matched up and getting our defense set.”

And so far, the Clippers have shown the same type of resilience and fighting back from deficits that they did last season. But George knows that isn’t going to cut it. He knows that the team needs to come out with a greater sense of urgency so they find themselves in situations where they need to come back.

“I’m happy we fought, but that can’t be who we are, just to be happy that we played hard,” George said. “We got to come in we got to do our jobs. . .I know that was a moral victory in Golden State, but we’ve got to do a better job coming out. Establish who we are and play hard. We got to win games.”

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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