Paul George was probably in the best form of his career until the LA Clippers ran out of steam last week, but he still has to deal with constant criticism.
George played possibly the best game of his career as the Clippers staved off elimination by defeating the Phoenix Suns 116-102 in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals last Monday. George posted 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on 15-of-20 shooting. That is one of the greatest NBA postseason stats. Yet it still hasn’t appeased his detractors.
Soon after, the Suns began celebrating, George wondered "what if" Kawhi Leonard had been healthy.
The Clippers ran out of gas and comebacks as their resilient playoff run came to an end with Wednesday's 130-103 loss in Game 6.
Had Leonard not sprained his right knee in Game 4 in the previous round against the Utah Jazz, George is adamant the Clippers would have eclipsed the Suns.
"We'd be going on," George said when asked about Leonard’s absence. "This series would be a lot different. Talk about one of the best players in the league being out, yet we were inches away from getting to the next round.
"So, definitely it's a 'what if' on this. Fact of the matter is we didn't do enough to win, and that's the reason we're going home."
Injuries, a fixture congestion and sheer fatigue caught up with the Clippers. So the trolls and haters will continue.
Maybe George created the disproportionate negativity after anointing himself “Playoff P”. That was in 2018 and he’s disappointed since. It now feels like he's on the verge of a breakthrough that actually seemed within his grasp nearly a decade ago.
In 2013, George was 23, a member of the Indiana Pacers and on the wrong end of a Game 7 loss to LeBron and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. He had seven points, but his series average of 19.4 against star-studded Miami suggested he was on the verge of superstardom. The next year, George’s Pacers fell to the Heat in the conference finals again, but PG put up 24.0 points and 3.2 threes with a 38.0 three-point percentage in that series.
But then George failed to get past the first round in each of his next four postseason appearances with the Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season, the Clippers infamously blew a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets. In the closeout game of that series, he shot 4-of-16 from the field and 2-of-11 from three.
Despite a top-three MVP finish in 2018-19 and postseason averages of 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.0 threes since breaking his leg in 2014, the low points seemed to get far more attention than the highs. "Playoff P" became more of a punchline than a moniker.
George has lacked the consistency to stamp himself as a superstar. Maybe at 31 he will finally confirm his nickname was appropriate after all.