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With Playoff P back, Paul George is proving he shouldn’t be a punchline

Clippers forward Paul George tries to split the defense of Suns forwards Cameron Johnson and Abdel Nader.
Clippers forward Paul George tries to split the defense of Suns forwards Cameron Johnson and Abdel Nader during Game 5 on Monday night in Phoenix.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Paul George never pretended he hadn’t seen or heard the criticism that followed his first year with the Clippers, but it rarely had moved from the world of social media and been said straight to his face as it was the night of Jan. 3 in Phoenix.

What started with the Clippers forward’s frustration over being fallen on during the fourth quarter quickly led to an argument with Suns guard Devin Booker. Reggie Jackson, one of George’s best friends, wrapped his arms around his teammate to separate them, but it didn’t stop George and Booker from trading words.

The exchange, according to George, had little to do with the play and more with the Clippers’ breakdown in the NBA bubble four months earlier, when George became the symbol of the franchise’s swift transformation from championship contender back to punchline.

“For whatever reason, there’s a lot of chirping and people just living in the past,” George said after the Clippers’ win that night. “Last year was last year. I’m in a new situation, I am in a different mind-set. Any of that hate stuff, you got to ask them. I don’t know where that’s coming from.”

The Clippers’ win over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals proved that they are resilient and can pull this off.

Six months later, on Monday night inside the same arena, it still was coming at him: boos and cries of “Playoff P” — the self-bestowed nickname that has haunted his social media mentions for more than two years — during Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. And just as George did in January, when he scored 39 points and delivered the assist on the game-sealing three-pointer, he didn’t wilt in the heat of the moment.

With a playoff career-high 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, he helped trim Phoenix’s series lead to 3-2 entering Game 6 on Wednesday and joined LeBron James, Patrick Ewing and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to produce at least 40 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 70% or better and facing elimination, according to Elias Sports.

George appeared exhausted afterward. With Kawhi Leonard missing seven consecutive games, George has played 735 playoff minutes — 130 more than anyone else, and 150 more than his closest teammate.

Those around him appeared just as tired of the criticism of George.

“I don’t know where this trolling bulls— has come from where the internet controls the narratives about these players,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “It’s becoming foolish, man. Like I said earlier in the year, that’s one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up.

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“Give this dude his flowers, man. I don’t understand the slander. It’s becoming quite silly now. Respect these players, man. Respect these greats.”

Clippers guard Paul George shoots a technical free throw during Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

George is the fourth player, joining Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan, to open a postseason with 18 consecutive games scoring 20 or more points.

“I just don’t understand why it’s magnified so much when he doesn’t play well, when he has a bad game,” said coach Tyronn Lue, a former teammate of Bryant and Jordan and coach of James. “A lot of people play bad. I’m just happy he came back and played a great game. We needed every bit of it.”

George’s two missed free throws with seconds remaining in a Game 2 loss, and five-for-20 shooting in another defeat in Game 4, provided kindling for his critics’ roasts and helped put the Clippers in an ominous 3-1 hole that only four teams have recovered from in a conference final. Though George averaged 27.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists during this series’ first four games, he’d made only 35% of his shots, which didn’t include his 69% free-throw shooting.

His answer in Game 5, with 30 of his 41 points coming in the second half, pushed the Clippers into their fourth elimination game of the playoffs. Asked whether he felt picked on, relative to the struggles of other players, George called it “the honest truth.”

“But I can’t worry about that,” he said. “It comes with the job, I guess. But it is what it is. I still try to go and dominate, whether I’m shooting the ball well or not shooting the ball well. I still try to dominate, just the whole game in general.

The Clippers’ Reggie Jackson uses cool, calm demeanor before and during Game 5 and scores eight of his 23 points in the fourth quarter in win over Suns.

“To me, it doesn’t come down to just scoring. It’s just being able to play both ends, rebound and make plays for others. And so I’m beyond that, you know what I mean? I’m beyond that. I am who I am. I wish I could shoot 80%, 75% on a nightly basis, but it’s not realistic.”

When the Clippers faced elimination for the first time this postseason in the sixth game of their first-round series against Dallas, Leonard took control with 45 points while also defending Mavericks star Luka Doncic. George added 20 points and 13 rebounds, but his praise of his fellow All-Star was flecked with acknowledgment that Leonard couldn’t shoulder such a workload again.

“I’ve got to be better,” George said.

In two elimination games since, with Leonard absent because of a strained right knee, George has lived up to his expectations. He scored 37 points with 16 rebounds in Game 5 of the second round in Utah before a performance Monday that proved more efficient, despite six turnovers.

“We want Kawhi [healthy], we all love Kawhi, but I’m happy for [George] as a player to be able to lead the team and show everybody what he’s got because there’s always a lot of chatter about how he plays and the things he does,” forward Marcus Morris said. “But no one really watches the day-to-day work that he puts in and the kind of teammate he is and the kind of player he is and how he is leading us.

“We’re dropping guys and he’s having 41-point damn near triple-doubles and averaging 17 rebounds ... You have to give credit when it’s due. I’m happy that this guy is stepping up and I’m happy he has the opportunity to be able to lead the team.”

Clippers-Suns finals schedule
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)


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