Kawhi Leonard didn’t waste any time. After watching his All-Star partner Paul George wander through three straight games against the Dallas Mavericks, he went straight to it from the start Tuesday night, scoring 15 points in the first quarter.
George did his part from there, emerging from what he called a “dark place” to lead the Clippers’ 154-111 Game 5 demolition of the Dallas Mavericks to get his game back and the Clippers back on track with a 3-2 series lead.
Two days after he scored just nine points in an overtime loss on a Luka Doncic buzzer-beater in Game 4, George was on the hunt from the start in his attempt to shake out of his funk. He led the Clippers with 35 points as they set a franchise playoff record for points, 3-pointers made (22) and point differential.
>> Game 6: Clippers vs. Mavericks, Thursday, 9 ET, ESPN
He made 12 of his 18 shots from the floor, draining 4-for-8 shots from 3-point range and went 7-for-7 on free throws. It was a much needed turn for a star who admitted that life in the NBA “bubble” had starting wearing on him mentally.
“The bubble got the best of me,” George said of trying to adjust to a playoffs with no fans, away from the comforts of home and the refuge his normal environment provides. “I was just in a dark place. I wasn’t here. I checked out.
“These past couple games it was just difficult. But shout out to the people that stood behind, that was in my corner, the positivity, my teammates, my family, friends, everybody. Thank everybody that reached out to me. I was just in a bad place and I found my way, I’m back and I look forward to the next of this run.”
The time between games was emotional for all of the Clippers. Coach Doc Rivers admitted as much after the game. He had late-night heart-to-heart talk with George after Game 4 and said the entire team did its part to lift George up during what was obviously a trying time.
But it was more than just a basketball issue.
Life on the NBA campus in Orlando and the separation from the outside world, where the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin added another dose of cold reality for the Clippers. They are like every other team, Rivers said, grappling with the pressures of the playoffs while the same issues they’ve been speaking out about since the George Floyd killing in Minnesota sparked protests nationwide and, eventually, around the globe.
“This is not a normal environment, okay. It just isn’t,” Rivers said. “But it’s good, like the NBA has done a terrific job. But Lou [Williams] made a great point, you lose a lot of games, and the game the other night was tough, and usually you go home to your family, here you go back to your rooms and your with each other and then you actually see the other teams. It’s just a strange thing, man. I tell you it’s just different.
“I thought our guys were great, though. PG and I sat in my room after the game and we just had a long talk, not all about basketball really, and you know several players did it. Guys were knocking on his door. This team is … you know we’re growing still, you can see it. We’ve not had the normal time together like most teams. And so things like that, they happen. I thought our guys … I’m just proud of all the players.”
As important as it was for the Clippers to rebound from that Game 4 loss and regain control in the series, it was perhaps even more important that George get back in his groove. Leonard scored 32 points, continuing his steady roll in the series.
He was more focused on George getting back to normal, though, and was deliberate in his effort to make sure it happened. It worked to perfection as George scored 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting by halftime to go along with Leonard’s 22 first-half points as the Clippers shredded the Mavericks for a 76-52 lead.
George stayed aggressive, scoring five straight points to kick off the third quarter and the Clippers never slowed down.
“I feel like he’s been aggressive the whole series,” Leonard said, defending George after the game. “He just didn’t make shots. Now you’re saying he was aggressive because he made shots. But he’s been playing that way this whole series. And they fell for him tonight.”
There’s no doubt George needed a breakout night. He scored 27 points in the series opener but couldn’t find his footing in Games 2, 3 and 4 — 11.3 points on 21% shooting from the floor, 16% from 3-point range.
The bubble got the best of me. … I was just in a dark place. I wasn’t here. I checked out.”
Clippers’ Paul George
“I just got into a different place,” George said. “Mentally, I just locked into a different place. I won’t go into details, but I got into a different place, a different mentality, a different mindset and I found myself. I came out and found myself. it was just a little bit of everything. I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety, a little bit of depression, just being locked in here and, you know, I just wasn’t there, I checked out. Games 2, 3, 4 … I just wasn’t there. I felt like I wasn’t here.”
George said he needed all the resources the Clippers could provide to get his mind right, to get his head back in the game and this series. He also leaned on family and friends and his teammates, of course.
The boost came from all directions, he said, near and far.
“Everybody reached out,” he said, “whether it was in person or through a text. All of my guys showed up for me. They helped me. They were there when I needed them. I’m indebted to this team. The love, the energy, the synergy, the camaraderie, the brotherhood. I can’t thank this squad enough.”
Rivers implored his team to bring their own energy for a game that, under normal circumstances would have been played before a raucous Staples Center crowd. They did exactly that, with the bench cranked up from the start and the noise and at a fever pitch the entire game.
A 19-0 first quarter run turned into a 32-6 blitz, followed by another 11-0 run before halftime. and there was no coming back this time for the Mavericks, who
“I came in with that mindset that this is Staples, we’re at home, the place is packed,” George said after becoming the first player in the shot clock era to score at least 35 points in under 25 minutes in a playoff game. “I really had to psych myself up. I thought the whole team took that and we ran with it. We created our own energy. We decided to dictate this game.”
The Mavericks couldn’t match any of what the Clippers showed up with. Doncic finished with a team-high 22 points to go along with his eight rebounds and four assists. But he was frustrated for most of his 31 minutes, playing on a tender left ankle that seemed to cause him more discomfort in this game than it did in Game 4.
Kristaps Porzingis missed his second straight game of the series with that sore right knee. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t get to see the finish from the court; he was ejected from the game with 6:42 to play in the third quarter.
There were six technical fouls and a flagrant-1 (on Tim Hardaway Jr., who wound up for a blow George’s face defending a drive) in a game that saw players from both teams jawing back and forth from start to finish.
“They’ve been doing a lot of chirping the whole series,” Hardaway said. “So we’ve done a great job coming out on top twice and prevailing twice. We’ve got to focus on doing the same thing on Thursday and bouncing back like we have been doing this whole series.”
It should make for an intense Game 6 atmosphere Thursday night, one that no one will need any extra motivation in preparation for, given the circumstances.
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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