2021 Playoffs: West Final | Suns vs. Clippers

Paul George silences doubters with virtuoso Game 5 performance

Paul George helps the Clippers stave off elimination and denies his critics satisfaction with a 41-point, 13-rebound masterpiece.

Paul George leads the Clippers to force a Game 6 back in LA.

Are you dizzy yet? Does your head feel like it’s been caught in the spin cycle of a highly efficient washing machine? Is your stomach churning from all the dips and the highs and the lows and the winding roads he’s taking you through?

This Paul George Playoff Ride — it’s quite the thrill-seeking ‘coaster, no?

For yet another night, George kept you guessing, and this time you were probably wrong. He went up when the circumstances suggested he’d fall down. He did not cave or bail or fold or all those other slanderous descriptions often laid at his feet, some deserved and some unfair. On a night when the Clippers needed a star performance and nothing less from their, well, star player, George delivered in a most emphatic manner.

Paul George did not need help from Kawhi Leonard or Ringo or John. He was enough for the Clippers to extend this Western Conference finals yet another game, courtesy of LA’s 116-102 Game 5 victory in Phoenix on Monday.

He was superb offensively, defensively, in the third quarter, at the finish, in the mid-range, from deep, at the rim, and with one eye after a devilish poke from Jae Crowder. And he made free throws — imagine that. Yes, anyone who wondered what was in his head after a pair of poor free throw-infused finishes last week now have their answer: redemption.

Was 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals in an elimination game on the road Monday enough to silence all the chirping — that’s George’s favorite word for the noise — at least for another few days if not the rest of these playoffs no matter what happens from here?

Well, probably not, because such is the basketball world in which we live.

“PG has been great for us all year and I just don’t understand why it’s magnified so much when he doesn’t play well,” said Clippers coach Ty Lue.

Actually, it’s easy to understand. One: we live in a viral, social media world where it’s easy to hurl insults through a computer screen without any accountability. Two: George brings it upon himself often with questionable comments/excuses to explain his failures (“Playoff P” among others). Three: George did miss some crucial free throws in this series; otherwise, would Phoenix be up 3-2? Four: the judgment gallery tends to emphasize the negative while rationalizing or quickly forgetting to accomplishments.

A change on defense and big-time showings on offense helps LA force a Game 6.

Back and forth it goes when it comes to George. The consensus can’t make up its minds. And it really is quite the phenomenon: Has any star player in recent history ever had such maddening swings in the playoffs based on public perception? To go from goat to hero and back and forth again is like following a tennis ball during a match.

George had 20 points in a game-changing third quarter, and 30 for the second half. He made all eight of his free throws. Would it surprise you to know George is averaging 30-10-6 against the Suns without Leonard? Remember, this is a player accused of not showing up big when it counts, a player who fed that reputation a few times and then watched it swell beyond his control.

He had played roughly 200 minutes more than anyone else in these playoffs entering Friday night by virtue of the Clippers going seven games against Dallas and six against Utah. When he took a breather early in the fourth quarter, and the Suns took advantage, the TV commentators had a fit. No, Paul George isn’t supposed to rest. OK.

Anyway, George returned and finished off the Suns with pull-up jumpers, squirmed inside for some layups and helped put the clamps on everyone not named Devin Booker (31 points) and Chris Paul (22). Even those two didn’t harm LA despite those numbers.

George was needed because the Clippers played this game on the Suns court, without Leonard, Serge Ibaka and this time, without Ivica Zubac (sidelined with a bum knee). Only two starters in Game 5 were starters on opening night. LA had to go small, and this was dangerous against center Deandre Ayton, the best player for Phoenix in this series. And with the Clippers being down 3-1, a screaming arena was ready to shovel dirt on their 2020-21 grave.

There was a nice contribution once again from Reggie Jackson (23 points) and a solid early start by Marcus Morris (22) and whoa … DeMarcus Cousins had an atonement game with 15 points (and one foul) in 11 minutes off the bench. Those players stunned the Suns, for sure.

Paul George explodes in the second half and finishes with a double-double of 41 points and 13 rebounds.

But, back to George. This stigma he’s battling has roots mainly in his post-Indiana Pacers days, when he and Russell Westbrook couldn’t save Oklahoma City — especially when Damian Lillard waved them bye-bye in the first round of 2019. George countered by saying Lillard’s series winner was “a bad shot.”

It escalated in the bubble when George picked the absolute wrong time to slog through his worst stretch, misfiring often in the playoffs and clunking at the end when the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the West semifinals. George said he battled demons caused by being in the bubble, and normally folks would have empathy for other players going through the same issues. But, no hankies for George for some reason.

“I don’t know where this trolling BS comes from where the internet controls the narrative about the players,” said Cousins. “It’s become quite silly. Respect these players. Respect these greats … he’s one of the most special guys to lace his shoes up.”

Anything that happened to George before Game 5 of this series — the good and the bad, the praise and criticism, the slaps and salutes — none of it means anything right now. The Ride took another sharp turn and rose up the hill where the view is gorgeous.

Perhaps that will change in another game, or two if the Clippers are fortunate; the sun will disappear and clouds will form. This is his pattern, after all.

But here and now? George just dragged the handicapped, left-for-dead Clippers back to LA and another game against the Suns. And it was glorious. Therefore: Lay Off P.

“They can judge me on what they want to,” he said. “That doesn’t bother me. I’ll go out there and hoop and give everything I got.”

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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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