Paul George just played perhaps the best game of his career as the Clippers staved off elimination by defeating the Phoenix Suns 116-102 in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Monday. In 41 minutes, George posted 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on 15-of-20 shooting, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range and 8 for 8 from the free-throw line.?
That qualifies as NBA postseason history.?
Paul George is the first player in @NBAHistory to score 40+ points on at least 75% FG, 50% 3FG and 100% FT in a postseason game. pic.twitter.com/DwwoSvJ2wy
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) June 29, 2021
It’s ironic that the player that has become one of the most heavily criticized postseason performers now holds a place in history for having authored — considering the stakes of a road elimination game and the burden of playing without Kawhi Leonard — one of the all-time great playoff stat lines. It begs the question: Is this an example of a guy redeeming himself, or a guy who’s been, for the most part, overly criticized despite being pretty great all along
George believes it’s the latter.?
“I do. It’s the honest truth. It’s a fact,” said Clippers guard Paul George on if he believes he is over criticized.
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) June 29, 2021
Count me firmly in George’s camp on this one. He has absolutely been overly criticized. That said, there are two important points to make. First, George invited this by dubbing himself “Playoff P” prior to his first postseason with Oklahoma City. You can’t nickname yourself. It’s awkward at best, desperate at worst. But if you do, you had better leave no doubt as to the validity of said moniker. George has left sufficient doubt. He’s had really bad games in really big moments, most still fresh in our memory.?
Which leads to my second point: George has lacked the consistency we expect from stars. While George has indeed logged a lot of great playoff games, he’s offered no shortage of clunkers. As noted by Jared Dubin for fivethirtyeight.com?(which provides many of the stats I’ll reference moving forward and is well worth your time to check out), in 107 career postseason games, George has shot under 40 percent on a minimum of 10 shot attempts 48 times. Do the math, and George has shot under 40 percent in 45 percent of his career postseason games. There’s also this:
Tuesday was Paul George’s 10th career postseason game shooting 25% or worse from the field (min. 15 attempts).
That’s the 3rd-most games by any player since the shot-clock era began in 1954-55.
H/T to @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/mXLLhIjd2V
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2021
Since that time, George has added an 11th clunker to that list with his 5-for-20 showing in Game 4 against the Suns. But let’s really?look at that game. George finished with 23 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. When did that line become some kind of pathetic showing? We all understand the importance of shooting efficiency these days, but come on. The guy played 42 minutes. He was everywhere on defense. Nobody, on either team, could make a shot. It was a tough, grind-it-out playoff game and his jumper just wasn’t there. It happens.?
And that’s not just me saying that. That’s a fact. Damian Lillard has shot under 40 percent in 45 percent of his career playoff games (28 out of 61), the exact same percentage of sub-40 shooting nights as George. Klay Thompson, widely regarded as one of the greatest shooters ever, has shot under 40 percent while taking at least 10 shots in 43 percent of his career playoff games. Allen Iverson shot under 40 percent on at least 10 attempts in 54 percent of his 71 playoff games. That’s not to diminish PG’s bricky tendencies. It’s just to note that he’s not alone.?
The difference is that while guys like Lillard, Iverson and Thompson have largely been defined by their best performances, George has been disproportionately linked to his worst. That’s not fair. For starters, George’s bad games, save for a few notable exceptions, have really just been bad shooting games. He does things to make up for it. He’s an all-around player. He rebounds. He defends. In games in which he shoots under 40 percent (on at least 10 attempts), he averages almost a full assist more than in games in which he falls short of the 40-percent clip, per Basketball-Reference.
More to consider: During his aforementioned 5-for-20 showing in Game 4 against Phoenix, George got to the free-throw line 18 times, and though he only made 12 of them, it’s indicative of a trait that used to be held in the highest regard — a great scorer compensating for his off-shooting nights by working his way to the charity stripe.?
It was not a one-off. In Game 3 of OKC’s 2019 first-round matchup vs. Portland, George shot 3 for 16 from the field but hit 14 of 17 free throws. In 2013, when he was playing for Indiana, he shot 3 for 13 from the field in a Game 1 win over Atlanta but 17 for 18 from the line. In Game 1 against Utah this year, George shot 4 of 17 from the field but 9 of 10 from the line. In the Clippers’ gutty Game 7 win over Dallas a few weeks ago, George shot just 5 for 15 from the field but 10 for 10 from the line and was a plus-15 for the game.?
Yes, George has had a few high-profile showings that can’t be explained away, when he truly did go in the tank. When the Thunder were eliminated in Game 6 of the 2018 playoffs by Utah, George put up five points on 2-of-16 shooting, including 0 for 6 from 3. He looked like a deer in headlights. But that’s more the exception than the rule.?
For all intents and purposes, George is still pretty good even when he can’t hit a shot. And when he’s great, he’s great. People forget how incredible he was early in his career for the Pacers. He stared LeBron James straight in the eye and established himself as one of the league’s true stars. Not rising stars. Stars. In the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, George averaged 21-5-5 on 50-percent shooting, including 47 percent from 3. You don’t get to just wash that off his playoff resume. That stuff counts.?
Counting Monday’s gem, George has scored at least 30 points in 18.7 percent of his career playoff games (20 out of 107). For the same of comparison, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas hit 30-point mark in 18 percent of his career playoff games. Dwyane Wade did it in 19 percent of his. Reggie Miller and Kyrie Irving are both at 20 percent.
There’s also this:
Paul George has put up 20+ PTS in all 18 games he’s played in this postseason.
The only other players in NBA history to score at least 20 in their first 18 games of a single NBA Playoffs are Michael Jordan (1992, 1997, 1998), Kobe Bryant (2008) and Kevin Durant (2012, 2018). pic.twitter.com/bRPRxtlEFK
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) June 29, 2021
This is all while logging an insane amount of minutes. Entering play on Tuesday, George, who has looked absolutely gassed at the end of games of late and has powered through, has played 735 total minutes in this postseason. Nobody else comes close to that. Devin Booker is the next highest at 605.?
Add all this up, and my contention is that George has definitely been overly criticized. He’s brought it on himself to a large degree with the nickname and excuses, but keeping it strictly on the court, we haven’t devoted nearly the same energy to his good games as we have his bad ones — which, again, haven’t been that bad if you look beyond just the shooting.?
Honestly, even if you forget all the numbers, I would argue that if you’re surprised by how well George has played, particularly without Leonard, in leading the Clippers to Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, you’ve been spending too much time on Twitter and not enough time actually watching this guy play. George is one of the smoothest, most versatile two-way players on the planet.?
To me, it’s a fair conversation that some of his playoff clunkers can in fact be attributed to never really figuring out how to master the No. 2 scorer role. When he’s been the clear No. 1, in Indiana and now without Leonard in L.A., he’s been nothing short of a superstar.?
This isn’t to suggest George belongs in the same conversation as a Jordan, Durant or Kobe. He doesn’t. But this is all relative to the choker reputation with which he’s been saddled. The guy has been turned into a punchline. You don’t have to deem him an all-time great to understand that he’s far from a joke.? Even if Twitter would have you believe otherwise.?
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