PHOENIX — Shortly before the comeback effort became official, the Los Angeles Clippers’ coaching staff dapped up Paul George.
The Clippers were moments away from cementing a 116-102 win over Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Monday, and the implications went beyond closing the Suns’ series lead to 3-2 and forcing a Game 6 in Los Angeles on Wednesday. George finished with a postseason career-high 41 points while shooting 15-of-20 from the field, 3-of-6 from 3-point range and 8-of-8 from the free-throw line along with 13 rebounds and six assists in 41 minutes.
So Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his assistants embraced George with daps and encouraging words.
“A lot of MF’s and bleep this and bleep that,” George mused.
Therefore, Lue respectfully declined to share his message to George presumably to keep those conversations private. Still, Lue somewhat tipped his hand, addressing the season-long criticism George has fielded for last season’s playoff struggles and occasional hiccups during this rollercoaster postseason run.
“I just don’t understand why it’s magnified so much when he doesn’t play well or he has a bad game,” Lue said. “A lot of people play bad. I’m just happy he came back and played a great game.”
George sure did.
George became the first player in NBA history to have at least 40 points on at least 75% shooting, 13 rebounds and six assists in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He cemented himself in the Clippers’ record books as the fourth player in franchise history to have a 40-point postseason performance. And George is only 12 days removed from a 37-point performance against the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, which was two points shy of his previous playoff career-high.
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Yet, George still has fielded skepticism and criticism for his play ever since his struggles in last year’s playoff run. The scrutiny heightened again following the Clippers’ Game 4 loss to Phoenix. Then, George shot only 5-of-20 from the field and 1-of-9 from 3-point range. He also missed a crucial free throw while the Clippers trailed 81-78 with 6.3 seconds. The telecast caught Clippers owner Steve Ballmer shaking his head and showing a disappointed look following George’s miss. In Game 2, George also missed a pair of free throws before the Suns won the game with Deandre Ayton’s inbounds lob.
“I don’t know where this trolling [expletive] from where the Internet controls the narrative about these players,” Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins said. “It’s becoming foolish man. That’s one of the most special players ever to lace his shoes. Give this dude his flowers, man. I don’t understand the slander. It’s becoming quite silly now. Respect these players, man. Respect these greats.”
Cousins might be exaggerating. George has received criticism because he underperformed in the NBA bubble. His free-throw struggles in Games 2 and 4 played a factor in the Clippers’ losses. Still, George has observed “it’s the honest truth” and “it’s a fact” that he has fielded more scrutiny for his poor play than others.
“I can’t worry about that,” George said. “It comes with the job, I guess. But it is what it is. I still try to go and dominate, whether I’m shooting the ball well or not shooting the ball well. I still try to dominate, just the whole game in general.”
So George did. Once again, George helped the Clippers in a high-stakes playoff game. Once again, George helped the Clippers absorb Kawhi Leonard’s absence while nursing an injured right knee for the seventh consecutive game. And once again, George helped the Clippers adjust to a new ailment that include center Ivica Zubac becoming sidelined with a right knee injury.
The Clippers also credited Reggie Jackson (23 points), Marcus Morris Sr. (22) and Cousins (15) to ensure promising leads early in the first quarter (18-5 with 7:28 left), at halftime (59-52), after the third quarter (91-78) and through the final buzzer. But most of the attention centered on George, considering his stature and the attention the Suns have given him.
“That’s what great players do,” Lue said. “You always bounce back. If you have a rough game, you always play well.”
In George’s case, he has shown remarkable resiliency for two reasons.
One, he has shrugged off sluggish performances and showed a strong ability to quickly forget about it. Though some fans might mistake George’s reaction to apathy, he has shown remarkable composure with thinking tactically instead of emotionally.
Two, George has devoted a significant amount of time toward maximizing his health to ensure handling a heavy workload. Normally, George has arrived to postgame interviews about 90 minutes after the game so he can receive treatment and sit in both a cold and hot tub. George talked about 15 minutes after Game 5 ended. But he planned on following the same routine afterwards “to making sure my body is as close to 100 as possible going into next game.”
No wonder George considered his health playing a “big factor” into why he played better in Game 5 than in Game 4.
“Tonight, my legs were under me,” George said. “I felt strong physically.”
That has not always been the case. George suffered a gruesome right leg injury with Team USA that caused him to miss the 2014 FIBA World Championships and all but the final eight games of the 2014-15 NBA season with the Indiana Pacers. Two summers ago, George had off-season surgery on both of his shoulders, causing him to miss 24 games in his first season with the Clippers last year.
“I definitely lost some things even with the shoulder surgeries,” George said. “It’s part of this game. You got to take it. You got to roll with it. Be able to adapt and just keep it moving. It is tough going through these injuries, rehabbing and finding a way to be yourself again. The good thing about it is you learn on the fly and how to adapt.”
Hence, George said he felt more comfortable “letting the game come to me” instead of trying to dominate the game. So despite a poor first-quarter start (three points on 1-of-3 shooting, two turnovers), George made up for it in the second quarter (eight points on 4-of-5 shooting), the third quarter (20 points on 7-of-8 shooting) and the fourth quarter (10 points on 3-of-4 shooting).
“I’m happy he has this opportunity to be able to lead a team,” Morris Sr. said. “We want Kawhi. We all love Kawhi. But I’m happy for Paul as a player where he’s able to lead a team and show everybody what he’s got because there’s always a lot of chatter on how he plays and the things he does. But nobody really watches the day-to-day work he puts in, the kind of teammate he is and kind of player he is.”
The Clippers do, though. So when George helped the Clippers salvage their postseason once again, the Clippers embraced him afterwards.
“We don’t have to pump him up. We know what Paul brings every night,” Cousins said. “We don’t get caught up in these silly narratives that are being pushed by the Internet. We know what Paul brings every night. He’s going to play on both end of the floor. He’s going to make the right play. He’s unguardable.”