Column: Clippers’ success depends on Paul George the superstar, not role player
Solving a problem starts with the recognition there is a problem.
Which at least Paul George acknowledged.
“I’m obviously struggling shooting, struggling scoring the ball,” George said in an online news conference Friday night after the Clippers went ahead of the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round playoff series, two games to one.
Not as if George could have claimed otherwise.
Over the last two games, the All-Star forward has shot the way Steve Blass or Rick Ankiel threw pitches.
George could barely make a basket in Game 2 and was even worse in Game 3, making only three of 16 shots, including one of eight three-pointers.
Kawhi Leonard has 36 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a 130-122 victory over Dallas, which loses Luka Doncic to an ankle injury in the second half.
Regardless of whether he starts scoring again, the Clippers figure to advance to the next round, as they have too much depth and too much Kawhi Leonard for the Mavericks, who have a worn down, if not physically incapacitated, on-court leader in Luka Doncic.
Game 4 is Sunday, but the series is over.
The Clippers didn’t clear salary cap space and acquire Leonard and George to win a first-round series, however. Owner Steve Ballmer is in this to win a championship and that won’t happen with George scoring 11 points like he did Friday.
George’s postgame self-evaluation counted as progress from the previous day, when he posted an image of a message on his Instagram account that said he didn’t care “what anybody thinks about me.”
“[Expletive] is u thinkin about me for anyway,” the message said, punctuated with a laughing-to-the-point-of-tears emoji.
The post appeared to be a response to the criticism directed at George in the wake of his four-for-17 shooting performance in a Game 2 loss, which was disconcerting.
Highlights from the Clippers’ 130-122 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 on Friday.
In effect, instead of blaming himself for missing nearly 80% of his shots, he was calling out others for pointing it out.
Not exactly the kind of mind set associated with champions.
While the Instagram post implied that George didn’t care what others thought, its very existence was evidence of how much he is bothered by his reputation as a choker.
George denied that was the case.
“First of all, I didn’t say that,” he said. “That was a post that someone else posted. I just reposted it. So that wasn’t words from me. I just thought it was interesting and it was relatable, not only for me but for everybody. I think people get so caught up what other people think. I’m Paul George, I don’t care to be anybody else. People need to live by that.”
If George was upset by what he heard and read after Game 2, he figures to be even more so now.
A large part of the derision is based on how a player who christened himself with the nickname “Playoff P” has seen his teams eliminated in the first round in each of the previous four seasons.
The joking resumed Friday, with Charles Barkley saying on TNT’s halftime show, “You can’t be calling yourself ‘Playoff P’ and lose all the time. You don’t see me walking around saying, ‘Hey, I won a championship,’ and I didn’t win it.”
“They don’t call you ‘Championship Chuck’?” Kenny Smith asked.
“They don’t call me ‘Championship Chuck,’” Barkley responded with a laugh.
Similarly, I don’t expect the editors on The Times sports copy desk to ever call me “Deadline D.”
While George conceded he wasn’t shooting well, he tried to downplay its significance.
“I’m going to continue to just get lost in the game, whether I make shots or miss shots,” he said. “Continue to be aggressive. Try to get guys looks. Just play the game. I’ve always said this, scoring the ball is not what I do. I try to do everything. I try to play the game the right way and just get lost in the game, try to pass the ball, make plays defensively, rebound, just a little bit of everything.”
He emphasized the idea later by declaring, “I’m no James Harden. That’s not my knack … to just shoot the ball, score the ball. I ... pride myself on being effective on both ends. But there’s going to be nights like this, where I just can’t make a shot.”
To his point: He finished Game 3 with nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
His wide range of talents were on display in the last six minutes. He assisted on a three-pointer by Leonard. He suckered Dorian Finney-Smith into committing an off-the-ball offensive foul. He floated an alley-oop pass to Ivica Zubac for a dunk. He pulled down a couple of rebounds, including one on the defensive end. And with 2 minutes 22 seconds remaining and the Clippers holding on to a 124-115 advantage, he pump-faked his way around Kristaps Porzingis to score a critical basket.
But the Clippers didn’t trade Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and five first-round draft picks to obtain a well-rounded role player. They traded for a superstar to pair with Leonard.
George acknowledged the responsibility after scoring 27 points in Game 1, when he said of Leonard, “I don’t ever want to have him believe that the pressure is all on him.”
In Game 3, it was.
That has to change.
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