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NBA Fastbreak: Paul George fading from MVP race because of injury?

Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George
Paul George’s defense, on display here against Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, is just as potent as his offense.
(Jim Mone / Associated Press)

The race for the NBA’s most-valuable-player award might seem like it’s down to two players — Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston’s James Harden.

Antetokounmpo is practically impossible to guard off the dribble, his long arms and constantly improving skills enough to give a defender the sweats. He’s also putting together a top-tier season on the defensive end.

Harden, last year’s MVP, has somehow put together an even better sequel, carrying the Rockets on his back while they recovered from a slow start and key injuries.

Right on the heels of those two players, though, should be Paul George.

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The Oklahoma City Thunder forward is having his best season as a pro, averaging career highs in points (28.4), rebounds (8.1), assists (4.2) and steals (2.2). He’s regarded as one of the best perimeter defenders, making him maybe the best player on both ends of the court this season, and the Thunder are tied for the third-most wins in the West.

Before Friday’s game at Staples Center, both Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Thunder coach Billy Donovan lauded George. But he struggled to just 15 points on five-for-16 shooting.

George blamed bad officiating (and was fined $25,000 on Saturday). But could a sore shoulder be slowing him down?

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George was a woeful 11 for 43 in losses to the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets before being shut down for three games because of the shoulder injury. In the three games since his return, he’s barely been better, shooting 31.3%.

The Thunder, who have lost seven of 10, have been sliding back in the standings and are in jeopardy of losing home-court advantage in the first round.

To stop the bleeding, the Thunder need George to heal and return to MVP form.

Piston powered

For teams comfortable in their conferences, this time of year is a mental challenge. The playoffs are still more than a month away, and when the schedule has back-to-back games and long road trips, maintaining focus is easier said than done. But for teams in the chase, the ones fighting for a spot in the postseason, now is the time.

Some of the best teams over the last two weeks are fighting to either earn or hang on to playoff spots. And of the five teams with seven or more wins in their last 10 games, no one is playing better than the Detroit Pistons.

In that span, the Pistons lead the NBA in all kinds of offensive metrics, including efficiency, effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage.

Blake Griffin is again garnering All-NBA consideration, and in the last 10 games he’s averaging 21.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists while continuing to stretch his offense beyond the three-point line. Center Andre Drummond has been dominant and guards Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard have been red hot from three-point range.

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The Pistons are playing like they could be a first-round opponent that teams at the top of the East might want to avoid.

Tip-Ins

The Clippers also have surged in the last 10 games, winning seven times. With a favorable schedule down the stretch — they’re in the middle of a stretch of eight straight games at Staples Center — the Clippers look like a favorite to avoid the No. 8 seed in the West, which would keep them from a first-round meeting with the top seed (likely the Golden State Warriors). … Speaking of the Clippers, the market for free agent-to-be Patrick Beverley should be interesting. Beverley has been healthy and shown he’s a top-tier three-and-D guard, locking down George on Friday night. Would a team like Chicago or Phoenix, both of whom could be in the market for a veteran point guard, make a push for him this summer? … Rasheed Wallace, who was a frequent contributor to NBA charities (via fines for technical fouls) during his playing career, has taken a high school coaching job in North Carolina. … One of the best stories in the second half has been Joakim Noah and the fire he’s brought to an under-manned Memphis Grizzlies team since signing with them in December. Since the All-Star break, Noah has averaged 11.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 blocks, breathing life into a career some thought was over.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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