Sugar coating the obvious is a waste of time for Paul George right now.
The LA Clippers don’t have time to overthink it anyway. Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks made sure of it Sunday, winning a wild overtime Game 4 thriller over the Clippers to even their first round playoff series at 2-2.
George wasn’t anywhere near Doncic on the game-winning shot at the buzzer — Reggie Jackson will have the honor of being immortalized forever as the victim on that highlight-reel play.
But George might as well have been the defender whose outstretched arm didn’t reach the target. Because no matter how many times his coaches and teammates insist that their current predicament isn’t the responsibility of just one player or one moment, George knows better.
The player who wore the “Playoff P” moniker with pride while producing at the highest level in the past, has been missing in action against the Mavericks.
“If I make shots, this series could be a little different,” George said after his 3-for-14 shooting effort (1-for-7 from beyond the 3-point line) in the 135-133 Game 4 loss. “And that’s the obvious, of course. That’s just what it comes down to. But give them credit, they are playing well. They are shooting the ball. Luka is playing phenomenal. You’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. But to be honest, in hindsight, if I shoot the ball better this series would be a lot different.”
Give George credit for being as brutally honest in his assessment of his own play as one could be after his woeful performance in the past three games.
The numbers are ugly — 11.3 points on 21% shooting from the floor, including 16% from 3-point range. This from a player with a career playing scoring average of 20 ppg on 42% shooting, (35.8% on 3-pointers). This from a player who has averaged 22.6 ppg or better, including a career-high 28.6 ppg last season with the Thunder, in each of his past five playoff appearances.
George has the lowest effective field goal percentage (34.8%) of any player in the playoffs with at least 50 shot attempts.
The Mavericks have one established superstar and another potential one in Kristaps Porzingis, who didn’t play Sunday because of a knee injury and missed the second half of Game 1 after being ejected with two technical fouls. The Clippers are supposed to have two set in stone: reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and George, who finished third in the Kia MVP balloting last season.
It hasn’t looked that way in this series, though. And George knows it. There is no refuge on the NBA campus in Orlando, where the scrutiny form the rest of the players from the 15 other playoff teams are roaming the same grounds, not to mention eyeballing the same social media chatter.
So while he insists that he’s not internalizing the struggles, his actions on the court say otherwise. If ever there was an opportunity to play your way out a slump it was Sunday, when the Clippers led by 21 early.
It didn’t happen.
“I just got to stay with it,” George said. “It’s a marathon man. I just got to stay with it. I thought early on I got a rhythm and then towards the third quarter I just got out of rhythm and I was just trying to find it. But you know, it was tough. It’s just tough for me right now. It’s hard to say, because I’m getting the looks and the shots, the floor is open and the defenders aren’t great. But I’m just having a hard time finding the ball through right now.”
After watching his team lose that big lead and ultimately lose the game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who routinely praises his crew’s mental toughness, said they played “emotionally weak.” It’s an assessment George didn’t necessarily agree with when asked about it.
Once I see it go through and I find that rhythm, I’ll be right where I want to be. The problem is just getting to that point.”
Leonard, however, agreed with Rivers, while maintaining full support for the other half of the Clippers’ dynamic duo as George tries to regain his form. He doesn’t have any magic tricks for turning it around, just staying the course and leaning into what he’s always done.
“Just tell him to keep going and his time is coming,” Leonard said. “He missed some easy looks tonight. But everybody did. It’s not his fault. We were up big in that second quarter and everybody has a part in winning the basketball game.”
George doesn’t need any pep talks anyway. He’s beyond that. Again, his confidence in himself, in his game, has not wavered.
“Yeah, I play the game confidently,” George said. “The shots I’m taking I’m expecting to make. It just … is what it is. I’m just missing shots and I don’t think it’s from a confidence standpoint. Because once I see it go through and I find that rhythm, I’ll be right where I want to be. The problem is just getting to that point.
“Usually you’re in a hostile environment and that helps you get into that moment. And so, I just have to find that, you know, just find that while I’m out on that floor in that environment. And I’ll battle through it, I’ll fight through it. I gotta help the team, I’m aware of that. And I’ll get to that point.”
The Mavericks’ confidence grows each and every minute they go toe-to-toe with the favored Clippers. George needs to find that point. Soon.
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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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