Just as there are few teams, if any, under more pressure to win an NBA championship this season than the Los Angeles Clippers, who are title-less after 51 years, few players are under more pressure to perform in the upcoming postseason than Clippers forward Paul George.
Both team and player, in fact, are routinely spoken of in similar terms — highly talented and often dominating but subject to slumps and choke jobs when it matters most.
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Which is why it’s not surprising that on Wednesday, in a piece naming the five stars with the most to prove in the playoffs, the Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale suggested that the Clippers won’t truly be seen as elite championship contenders until George can reverse his reputation for postseason duds.
“The Clippers have the look and, at times, feel of a championship favorite,” wrote Favale. “But they won’t earn absolute benefit of the doubt unless Paul invalidates his.”
A Dip Has Become the Norm
Whether or not the Clippers can win a title even if George is not playing well remains to be seen, but one needn’t look further than last year’s NBA bubble to at least entertain Favale’s premise.
Up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, with home court for two of a possible three remaining contests, the Clippers somehow managed to lose them all, with the finale devolving into a straight-up nightmare for George in particular.
After averaging 23.7 points on 46.5% shooting from the field and 42.9% from three over the first six games, including a 32-point performance on 12-for-18 shooting in Game 3, George filled the bedsheets in the decisive Game 7, going 4-for-16 from the floor and committing five turnovers en route to a 10-point stinker and a 15-point Clippers loss.
Had it been George’s only poor playoff performance, or even just one of a small handful over his 10 years in the league (spread amongst Indiana, OKC and LA), it’s doubtful there would be so much pressure on him to bring it this postseason. But, as Favale points out, a dip in performance during the playoffs has become the norm for George in recent years.
“Though he has never regressed into a total no-show or liability,” wrote Favale, “his efficiency has taken serious hits. He shot 34.8 percent on twos during his final postseason series with the Indiana Pacers in 2017 and is knocking down under 34 percent of his three-point attempts over his past three playoff appearances.”
In 89 career playoff games, George has shot 41.9% from the field and 35.6% from three — not huge drop-offs from his career regular-season numbers of 43.6% and 38.4%, but with superstars like George, it’s generally hoped that their efficiency will go up in the playoffs, not down.
If George Brings It, Plenty of Reason for Hope
If George can reverse the trend of the last few seasons and bring his stellar regular season play — 23.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and career highs in overall and three-point shooting percentages — into the playoffs, there is plenty of reason for hope in Clipper Nation.
At this point, according to the lovable eggheads over at Fivethirtyeight, the Clippers have a 35% chance of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in team history and a 21% chance of winning the championship, making them the favorite in the West and second overall behind the Sixers.
But that’s the thing about George and the playoffs, it’s tough to predict what he will do even game to game.
In the series preceding last year’s Nuggets meltdown, a first-round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, George made history in both good and bad ways. Over Games 2, 3 and 4, he became the first player to shoot under 25% in three straight playoff games since Celtics legend Bob Cousy did it in 1960, on a minimum of 10 attempts. A dubious honor, to say the least.
But then, in Game 5, George became the only player in the shot-clock era to score 35 points in 25 minutes or less.
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