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Paul George has answer for critics after challenging bubble stint

With the disappointing end of last season behind him, George says he's coming back with a 'vengeance'.

Paul George is averaging career-highs in shooting and 3-point percentage this season.

The previous NBA postseason was a bizarre basketball bazaar held inside an insulated “bubble” and it pummeled him and shook him but, as we’ve seen since then, didn’t break Paul George.

Having fallen off that hoops summit ever so spectacularly in so many ways, he’s displaying the skill and impact at both ends of the court that many have come to expect from him. George is once again delivering that for the LA Clippers here in what’s shaping up as an All-NBA level regular season.

Of course, it’s those last two cautionary words — “regular season” — that imply George is typically marvelous from fall until spring, and then gets exposed for being less than a superstar when it truly counts. The results are the results: George has had some bitter playoff eliminations and is still looking for his first NBA Finals.

There’s nothing he can say or even do about that right now, nothing except bide his time, keep the Clippers elevated in the West, then deal with those demons when the playoffs arrive in late May. Then, there will be plenty at stake: The fate of a team built to win now, and the reputation of their wing player who must somehow repair all the damage from the slander thrown his way lately at 100 miles per hour.

As he mentioned recently, George has felt these missiles not only from the usual sources — social media mainly — but some of his peers who chose to break ranks and openly criticize a fellow member of the NBA family. Usually whenever it’s player vs. player, it’s because of an incident that spilled over from a game. In the case of George, players who never had beef with him have mocked him and his history of playing subpar in the playoffs, either directly or through social media.

It came into view most vividly last month during a game with the Phoenix Suns. That’s when Chris Paul and Devin Booker had words with George, and Booker was particularly salty. George revealed then how he “didn’t hear none of this in my first 10 years in the league” and chalked it up as “people just living in the past” — mainly, what happened in the bubble — and later issued the vow that’s designed to put him squarely on the spot:

“I’m coming back with a vengeance.”

As he and the Clippers prepare for the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday in a game where the four key players involved — George, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden — bring a combined 34 All-Star appearances, George is fulfilling that bold declaration. His play so far is stellar if not borderline MVP-ish.

Paul George lit up the Suns for 39 points in January.

In terms of true shooting percentage this season, George’s 66% ranks among the NBA’s best and is No. 2 among players who were All-Stars last season (Joel Embiid is No. 1 at 66.9%). He’s scoring well (23.6 ppg) and enjoying his best shooting season both overall (50.2%) and from 3-point range (45.4%). That’s an amazing stretch of efficiency and evidence that George, whenever given the chance to score, is mostly making the best of it.

And that’s not even mentioning his defense, which once again is top shelf. George is the rare player who can guard multiple positions, and he’ll have a steep assignment Tuesday with Harden or Durant, and may spend time guarding both.

George cites his healthy shoulder, which was surgically repaired two summers ago, as a reason for his current play. His turnovers remain problematic as his 3.8 per game is a career high and he’s ninth in the league in overall turnovers. Much of that is due to the Clippers lacking a true point guard, forcing George and Leonard to assume play-creating duties for themselves and others.

“I’ve got to be better, I’ve got to take care of the ball a lot better,” George said. “But for me, it’s fun. I play for my teammates so it’s not going to be perfect, but I thrive on being on the floor and trying to make my teammates better.”

New Clippers coach Ty Lue is stressing ball movement, and George is buying into that philosophy (as his 5.4 apg average — a career-high — proves).

Paul George showed off his court vision in a win vs. the Kings.

“I love connecting the team, I love getting guys shots,” he said. “One guy makes a play for another, and our whole team just plays that same style.”

He served notice this season right from jump, with 33 points in the season-opening win against the Lakers. Since then: 39 points against the Suns in a chippy win against Booker and Co. on Jan. 3; 25 and six steals in a loss to the Jazz on Jan. 1 and a career high 12 assists against the Kings on Jan. 20. The Brooklyn game will be a must-watch, as George will get a highly anticipated matchup with Harden in one of those games that will command the attention of the NBA world.

It’s the same world that watched George struggle last fall in Orlando, and it’s not a stretch to suggest he helped drag down the Clippers. He shot 35.8% against Dallas — including a three-game stretch in which he made just 10 of his 47 shots — in a series the Clippers won 4-3. George went public about the mental challenges he felt then. Some of that was perhaps brought upon by George’s decision to engage in a social-media spat with Damian Lillard after the Blazers star missed a pair of last-second free throws in a restart game and endured laughter from the Clippers’ bench by Pat Beverley and Marcus Morris.

When George joined in, he was universally mocked for his own playoff failures, starting in Indiana, then OKC. While Lillard has spent his entire career with one team and resisted any urge to leave and join a “superteam,” George has negotiated his way out of two franchises.

The weight on his shoulders grew heavier when he and the Clippers collapsed against Denver in the Western Conference semfinals after leading the series 3-1. Leonard and George combined to shoot two for 18 after halftime in the Game 7 loss, and George was faced with a short offseason of soul searching.

“I had a tough year last year,” George conceded. “People think it’s sweet. I gotta answer that … It’s fine. I’ve got to play up through that. I’ll go through the fire.”

It was just two seasons ago when George finished No. 3 in Kia MVP voting. He and Russell Westbrook made for a dangerous duo in OKC, until Lillard waved them both good-bye with a series-clinching shot over George from nearly mid-court. While appearing on the podcast “All The Smoke” in December, George said he feels as good physically as he did in 2018, while also declaring himself washed clean of all the mental pain from the bubble.

The multiple challenges of making the Clippers feel no buyer’s remorse after giving him a four-year, $190 million extension, and helping the club bounce back from the bubble experience, and mainly from all the “chatter” directed to him, is fueling George now.

“I didn’t like, not so much of the noise and everything around it, but just the fact that people saw weakness,” he said. “And I had to address that. I had to answer that. That fueled me. That put me in a place where I wanted to come back and be myself again.”

Is Paul George a shoo-in as an All-Star this season?

Morris said: “I’m happy to see that aggressiveness and I know for a fact that he had something to prove, and I know that’s the way he’s feeling. So we’re excited, man.”

The biggest challenge for George and the Clippers is to keep that excitement flowing through the late summer. That’s a long time, and the playoffs seem far down the path, and true redemption must wait until then. At the very least, George is putting himself in position for redemption to happen.

“After the tough year last year, it was the only way I could respond,” George said. “That was the only thing on my mind and the only thing was to get better.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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