Paul George barely had time to savor the night of June 14 before a new day — and dramatically changed circumstances — arrived.
For three hours that night, Staples Center had rocked as the Clippers routed the top-seeded Utah Jazz, tying a series they once trailed by two games in a victory that seemed like a harbinger of a deep playoff run.
By scoring 30 points apiece for a second consecutive victory, George and Kawhi Leonard, the All-Star Clippers teammates playing in their fourth playoff series together, had finally begun to display the might of their postseason tandem.
But in the fourth quarter, the arena fell quiet when Leonard exited, favoring his right knee.
“I kind of had a feeling that night that it might be the end of Kawhi, at least for the next couple games,” George said. “I knew, all right, I know Kawhi, he’s going to make it through it and give us whatever he’s got. I just got to get us to that point. And that was my mindset.”
George arrived in Salt Lake City the next day with baggage. Few NBA players have the capacity to score 30 points or spark online ridicule as quickly as the seven-time All-Star. Even in a league of bigger names and larger bodies, he stands out as a 6-foot-8 lightning rod for criticism.
He has been mocked for his self-anointed nickname, “Playoff P.” For his shooting struggles in the 2020 postseason. For missing a three-point try off the side of the backboard against the Denver Nuggets and saying afterward that a title hadn’t been the end-all, be-all goal in his first season alongside Leonard.
Yet instead of arriving in Utah saddled with the weight of the potential for more embarrassment, “mentally,” he said, “I was already in a great place.”
The next night in Game 5, George scored 37 points and had 16 rebounds. The Clippers would close out the series in Game 6. Leonard had played his last game because of a partially torn knee ligament, and one round later, with forward Marcus Morris Sr. and center Ivica Zubac also out or impaired by injuries, the Clippers extended the franchise’s first conference finals appearance to six games. George averaged 29.6 points, 11 rebounds and 5.6 assists in eight games against the Jazz and the Phoenix Suns without Leonard, playing 41 minutes a night.
“That proved to himself,” teammate Nicolas Batum said, “he can really lead this team without Kawhi.”
For some, it was the product of George’s healthy shoulders.
For George, it was also the payoff of a cleared mind, and a choice made in the weeks after the bubble as he reviewed his season. Only weeks earlier, acknowledging the unrelenting derision in his mentions amid the 2020 playoffs, George spoke publicly about discussing his feelings of depression and anxiety with a team psychologist.
“The areas that stick out to me, I address it,” he said. “And that was the one thing that I didn’t feel myself in was that I allowed too much outside noise to kind of affect me on the court.
“I’ve done a good job of that in my career up to that point of not allowing outside noise to affect me, so that’s really where the page turned. The corner turned for me was, I don’t care what anyone else has to say. Like, 90% of the people who are critiquing me can’t do what I do. It’s just funny that someone can call someone else out of what they do, what their profession is, and people buy into that.”
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On Thursday, a new Clippers season arrives when the team faces the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. In some ways, the Clippers might as well be back in June, landing in Utah amid uncertainty, a man down, with George trying to prove the world wrong. Leonard is still recovering from surgery he had in July, his return this season not guaranteed, but it hasn’t changed the Clippers’ expectations of being postseason contenders. Such hope rests on the belief that so much of what propelled last season will return: their surplus of shooting, the one-step-ahead strategy of their coach, their resilience.
Mostly it hinges on their confidence the 31-year-old George can deliver as he did in Game 5. On how much coach Tyronn Lue can get out of his star — and George from himself.
“It’s just an approach where I don’t give a F,” George said about outside criticism. “I don’t give a s---. That’s just how I attack the court now. Like I said, I don’t need validation. I’m my worst critic, and that’s the only thing that matters — the only thing that matters to me.”
When Brian Shaw arrived in Indianapolis in 2011, the new Indiana Pacers assistant learned George loved to fish as much as he did.
On the water, they connected over stories about Kobe Bryant, who was George’s idol growing up in Palmdale. Bryant was Shaw’s teammate on three Lakers championship teams and a confidant during two more title runs with Shaw as a Lakers assistant. If George arrived at practice later than usual, Shaw would remind him, “Kobe never did that.”
To maximize George’s prodigious gifts, Shaw knew some nights required throwing an arm around his shoulder and offering encouragement. Others required prodding.
In the 2013 Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, Shaw pulled George aside, calling him out that he was shying away from contact and allowing his layups to be blocked. Finish at the rim with your palms down, instead of up, he told George.
“He went down the lane in the next game and dunked on [Chris Andersen], and to me that was his coming-of-age moment. And after that dunk, even Miami called a timeout, and as he was walking past LeBron [James] gave him some dap. I think that’s when it registered to him, ‘I can do this.’ ”
His career took off: The second All-Star nod the following season, the horrific broken leg in 2014 and his recovery in, and eventual divorce from, Indiana. A No. 1 scoring option with the Pacers, he authored a near-MVP season with the Oklahoma City Thunder alongside Russell Westbrook in 2019 before asking for a trade to L.A. to pair up with Leonard.
George went from taking 5.2 three-point attempts per game, with 36% accuracy, during his first six seasons to eight per game on nearly 40% accuracy in five seasons since.
“You can’t please everybody. Your work will speak for itself. Blocking out the noise, that’s the next step for him.
Brian Shaw on Paul George’s new frame of mind.
Shaw watched the highs and lows from afar after leaving Indiana. He didn’t like everything he saw, believing George spent too much energy arguing with officials. George doesn’t believe he’s above criticism; he just filtered whose he puts stock in. By doing that, George’s career has made its next evolution, Shaw said.
“You can’t please everybody,” Shaw said. “Your work will speak for itself. Blocking out the noise, that’s the next step for him.”
The mindset cuts against George’s people-pleaser nature. He likes to be liked. But last season, accepting any stray comment might turn him into a trending topic, he leaned in. He publicly questioned why he wasn’t receiving more foul calls, called out Phoenix’s Chris Paul and Devin Booker after an on-court argument for living in the past, and expressed calm after the Clippers trailed the Dallas Mavericks 2-0 in the first round.
He has always spoken his mind. Only now, he doesn’t stick around to read his mentions afterward.
“For a long part of my career, I got criticized a lot for whatever reasons, coming up short, not playing well,” George said. “I took a lot of criticism. And I was the person that kind of would buy into what people were saying. But then it got to a point, especially coming out of the bubble, where it was like, I don’t need validation, you know what I mean?”
… I play this game to the fullest. I work hard. Sometimes the results come up short. Not everyone is a champion, not everyone is this, not everyone is that, so it comes with the game. But if I come out here and play as hard as I can, I’m a great teammate, that’s all that matters in the game of basketball. Everything else is irrelevant to me.”
George calls himself his own worst critic, and he will have innumerable opportunities this season to evaluate where he must improve.
Lue studied European teams during this offseason for ways to increase his offense’s movement rather than allow defenses to load up against George, but there is little secret George will be relied on now more than ever. In pick-and-roll plays, there is a hope he can limit his errant passes that contributed to a career-high-tying 3.3 turnovers per game last season.
“I think it’s going to be a huge test for him because teams are going to blitz him a lot more, they are going to fire at him a lot more, try not to let him play,” Lue said. “Last year prepared him for this moment.”
While an increased burden has fallen on George’s surgically repaired shoulders, he has not outwardly allowed its weight to cloud his preseason. He welcomed his third child, a son, in September. He shares a starting lineup alongside his closest friend in the NBA, Reggie Jackson. The first year of a four-year, $190-million extension just kicked in. One Clippers employee described George’s disposition as “buoyant.”
“When superstars or guys are comfortable, it’s easy to get the best out of them,” Morris said. “And I think he’s finally found somewhere where he’s super comfortable, where everybody understands him and lets him be him.”
That comfort was seen in training camp. Teammates noticed when George spoke up to critique the effort and focus of a drill.
“That’s something he wouldn’t do before as much,” Zubac said.
“Regardless of how this season plays out, I’m at peace,” George said. “I’m gonna attack the court and play as hard as I can as I always do. That’s not the concern for me anymore. I know what I’m gonna get out of myself. But I get an awesome opportunity to help these young guys.”
It seems likely he will share one lesson in particular — the one that created last season’s redemption and has sustained his belief this season.
“He understands the importance of this moment, what he needs to do for this team to hold everything afloat,” Shaw said. “I think his confidence is at an all-time high.”
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