Pelicans spoil Paul George’s debut with the Clippers
Perched high on the cliffs of the Greek isle of Santorini, the hotel had the kind of million-dollar views tourists travel far to see: The stark-white buildings overlooking crystal-blue waters below.
In August, however, guests began eschewing all that, lining up to peer into the property’s nondescript gym instead. Forget the Instagram-worthy backdrop outside; they were getting something everyone in the NBA wanted — a view of Paul George’s rehabilitation from offseason surgery on both shoulders.
Every day, for more than two weeks straight, George held workouts that lasted nearly three hours. His right shoulder had undergone surgery in May to repair a partially torn tendon. In June, doctors fixed a small labrum tear in his left.
The forward became a five-time all-NBA star partially because of his ability to create space in which to operate, and Greece was no different. When the gym’s ceiling proved too low for the 6-foot-9 George to raise his arms, he turned an outdoor staircase into an improvised workout space. Weights in each hand, he climbed stairs overlooking the Aegean.
Three months after those workouts, and with a slightly larger audience watching, George displayed the fruit of his offseason work at Smoothie King Center, scoring 33 points in 24 minutes in a highly anticipated debut spoiled by a 132-127 Pelicans victory that marked a second consecutive Clippers defeat.
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Lou Williams added 31 points for the Clippers (7-5) and Rodney McGruder scored 20 points.
Kawhi Leonard (left knee injury management) and Patrick Beverley (sore left calf) did not play in the loss, and their absences led to frequent bouts of miscommunication, particularly defending the Pelicans’ pick-and-roll.
Jrue Holiday scored a game-high 36 points, including nine in the final 4:27 that broke open what was a one-point lead for the Pelicans (3-8). George had two turnovers during that stretch; he also scored seven points.
Before George, no NBA player had ever scored more than 30 points while playing fewer than 25 minutes in his first game with a team.
Head coach Doc Rivers called George’s performance “sensational.”
McGruder called it “big-time.”
George, who hadn’t played in a game since April 23 and had participated in one full practice since being medically cleared Nov. 7, said it was “the best my shoulders have felt in a really long time.” He said his conditioning was fine. But overall?
“I thought I was terrible,” he said. “I got a lot to get back to just from my performance, my defense and just for the flow of the game.
“I’m here to win games and I didn’t get a win. We had a chance to win tonight, and couple bad possessions in a row on my behalf down the stretch and we lose.”
That George cast a critical eye on his performance was not shocking.
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In their few months since acquiring George in a July 5 trade from Oklahoma City — the same night Leonard committed as a free agent — the Clippers understood George to be as serious about his work as he is open and inviting off the court. The stories they later heard about how George spent his summer vacation confirmed that.
“The reports I got was how good of a worker he is,” Rivers said. “And how he doesn’t screw around.”
It carried over during George’s months since returning from vacation as well. Unable to fully participate with teammates, injured players can drift in and out of engagement. But George was an ever-present presence on the sideline, watching as teammates ran sets designed specifically for him. Given a chance to operate them himself Thursday, “it was seamless,” Rivers said.
“He ran plays like he had been running them for weeks, months, and I was shocked by that,” Rivers said. “We ran a very difficult play for him. He scored six points out of it. That is all timing. When we saw he could do it, we kept running it. We were surprised. So you have to give him credit. He must’ve watched a heck of a lot of film and all of that to be prepared.”
George likened the appearance to his first preseason game, singling out his need to improve his foot speed, staying down on defense and out of foul trouble — he was whistled for four in his first nine minutes — and all the things that come with playing real, five-on-five basketball at NBA speed, not practicing against defenders prohibited from touching the shoulders of a franchise cornerstone.
The crowd watching George will only increase from here. On Saturday, he could play alongside Leonard for the first time. But like his summertime workouts abroad, Thursday’s performance drew stares, a sight to behold after months of work in the background.
Said George: “It’s just a good start for me to go from here.”
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