LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 25: Paul George #13 of the Los Angeles Clippers drives against … [+] Justin Jackson #44 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second half in game five of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 25, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
For a first-round series, the L.A. Clippers and Dallas Mavericks are providing endless storylines. With each game, there’s a new dynamic at play or a major adjustment lingering for Doc Rivers or Rick Carlisle.
Injuries have tried their hardest to ravage this series. Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs’ center that’s 9-of-17 (52.9%) from three in this matchup, has missed the last two games with right knee soreness. While an MRI showed no structural damage, the pain has clearly been too severe for him to suit up. Luka Dončić is still dealing with the effects of a sprained left ankle from Game 3, electing to play despite showing visible signs of discomfort while running and planting his feet on drives.
The Clippers have been without Patrick Beverley, the head of the snake for them defensively and the best on-court communicator on the team.
Through five games, tempers are flaring between certain players, refs are fed up with the constant pleading for fouls, and Dončić isn’t too fond of the on-court chatter (or possibly dirty antics) from Marcus Morris.
At the forefront of everything, however, was Paul George’s disappearing act. After a potent Game 1 performance with 27 points on respectable shooting, he had the worst three-game stretch of his playoff career. Combining to score 34 points on 47 shots in Games 2-4, he was the subject of countless internet memes, national ridicule, and a level of mockery that can be unhealthy for any athlete or celebrity if they’re paying attention.
The day before Game 5, Clippers’ forward JaMychal Green shared his sentiments on George’s on-court struggles, believing the superstar wing was clouding his mind with too much outside noise.
“You know, we just keep trying to tell PG to get out of his head, try to block out the social media, the fans, and just get back to playing ball,” Green said. “We need him. We need him to get back to the high-level basketball he’s capable of playing, and I feel like he’s just in his head, so we just try to tell him that we need him, we know what he can do, and just to show it.”
After practice on Monday, George restricted his Instagram comments, likely to mitigate the flood of vitriol. Throughout the week-long drought, Rivers continually expressed how much he trusted George on the floor, believing the best medicine for him was to “get the ball up in the air” and “shoot 20-plus times.”
George didn’t back down. He rose to the occasion with 18 first-half points on 8-of-12 shooting, then kept his foot on the accelerator with 17 second-half points on 4-of-6 shooting. Overall, finishing with 35 points on 83% true shooting, he led the Clippers to their most impressive win of the season. It’s no exaggeration, either: Tuesday’s Game 5 victory included the Clippers’ third-highest offensive rating in non-garbage time minutes this season, per Cleaning The Glass. For them to generate 140.2 points per 100 possessions in a playoff game — with all of the other games listed below occurring in the regular season — it was a masterclass performance for their perimeter scorers:
George didn’t even meet Rivers’ benchmark of 20 shots, largely because he only logged 25 minutes on the court. But this outcome was the best-case scenario for him, the team, and their path toward a championship in the next seven weeks.
He didn’t completely silence those questioning his place among the NBA’s most-dependable star players, but he certainly reduced the volume. With the nature of the modern NBA’s overreaction culture, three straight poor games by George triggered a wave of big-picture takeaways, including the criticism of Kawhi Leonard choosing “the worst-possible route” in his 2019 free agency. As one could guess, it centered on the collection of players and draft assets the Clippers were forced to part with to retrieve George from Oklahoma City.
Needless to say, those talking points only arise when George comes up short. When he produces at his normal rate, after averaging 26.2 points per 36 minutes during the regular season, all of a sudden nobody is questioning what the Clippers had to do last summer. That’s just the nature of mainstream sports dialogue.
After George’s standout night, which was his 13th career playoff game with at least 30 points, we found out his personal hardships weren’t limited to basketball. He elucidated all of the ongoing issues he’s navigating in the Orlando bubble, going in-depth on how his mindset has been affected.
“It was just a little bit of everything,” George said. “I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety, a little bit of depression. Just being locked in here (on campus). I just wasn’t there. I checked out. Games 2, 3, and 4, I felt like I wasn’t there. But shout out to the people that was in my corner, people that gave me the words. They helped big-time about getting me right back in great spirits. Can’t thank them enough.”
George’s revelation brought up a significant topic. Professional athletes are no less human than the average person working a factory or manual labor job. Mental health and stability are no less important for athletes than they are teachers, doctors, or actors. While the beauty of the universe is that each and every person has different qualities that make them unique, that doesn’t make anyone invincible to the effects of depression and isolation.
The fans, media, and outside world never really have a strong grip on how athletes are feeling mentally, what goes through their minds, or what they might have going on in their personal lives. With how much negativity surrounds the internet on a daily basis, George’s acknowledgement of these internal demons served as a reminder that criticism doesn’t have to be overaggressive. These players aren’t robots.
Entering the bubble, the emotional drain and mental wear and tear were underplayed. Nobody was ever going to express discontent within the first two weeks. From the time everyone arrived on Disney’s campus (July 7-9) to the start of the seeding games (July 30), there was still a freshness to the situation. Players were enjoying the time during their off-days to regain the team camaraderie from the regular season. They were focused on honing their skills during practice, getting back into proper game shape, and reconnecting with each other.
It was always going to be about the middle of August, once everyone had six-plus weeks away from their families and significant others, and when all of the fun outdoor activities lost their flavor. That would be the biggest test for the players and coaches, enduring the same day-to-day process and not having a mental release.
For the Clippers, who arrived on July 9, Tuesday’s Game 5 marked their 49th straight day in the bubble. Since they are atop the list of title favorites and expect to be playing into mid-October, players had to brace themselves for 96 or 97 straight days at the same venue. That isn’t comparable to some overseas trip in the preseason. It isn’t the same as an AAU camp. The only comparison is leaving your home city for a college semester, except you’re not even allowed to leave the premises one time. People were naive to think it would go as smoothly and comfortably for the entire length of the restart.
LOS ANGELES, CA – DECEMBER 25: Paul George #13 shakes hands with head coach Doc Rivers of the Los … [+] Angeles Clippers during a time out in the second half of the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 25, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
George’s teammates sensed a change in his demeanor during this series, perhaps concerned that his confidence level would take a dramatic hit. Montrezl Harrell, who is still going through a lot with the recent loss of his grandmother, took it upon himself to console his teammate, finding the best way to connect with George before Game 5. Their shared appreciation for video games allowed for a much-needed breather.
“He just went back to himself,” Harrell said. “I think us spending time together yesterday, playing video games, just him getting away from the game and basketball in general, it really helped him out a lot. He was able to be free and enjoy himself as a man, as a person.”
Harrell wasn’t the only one constantly checking on George and providing a helping hand. Rivers said he invited George to sit his room following Game 4 on Sunday, having a long talk that didn’t really include much basketball conversation.
“It meant a lot, it’s tough,” George said. “This is really hard being in here. It’s not easy. All day, it’s just basketball. It’s hard to get away from it. You get to see guys on other teams, and shout out to the NBA for creating this environment, but at the same time it’s rough. I just got to find what’s going to get me able to check out of the game and check out of just constantly being in that mode. So, you know, again, all my guys helped. I’ve been around them, we’ve been out playing the game. Had a great talk with Doc. Again, all my family was there (for me). My girl and my kid. Just so many people that I can name that I’ve talked to in the past 24 hours that had a helping hand in just getting me into a better spirit again.”
George also spoke with the Clippers’ team psychiatrist the day of Game 5. He said he walked away with a change in his spirit and energy, which is all he needed. That shouldn’t go under the radar, either, with the playoffs still very much in the early rounds. Every team brought their own psychiatrists and mental health doctors to Orlando. It’s paramount for the NBA to normalize these interactions, to give players every possible avenue to seek assistance when they are feeling down, and to encourage more players to get things off their chest if needed.
As for the basketball approach, George vowed after Game 4 to make subtle adjustments in his game. He wanted to attack in various ways to diversify his shot-selection, saying he needed to be more aggressive hunting shots near the basket. Specifically, he mentioned the idea of posting up the Mavericks’ smaller guards, since Dallas doesn’t have an adequate defender his size in most halfcourt possessions.
He started the first quarter with two jumpers over the smaller Tim Hardaway Jr., who was primarily matched up with him throughout the game.
Sticking true to his game plan of trying to “see the ball go through the net” before venturing outside, he made sure not to settle in his usual ball-screen action. When paired with Harrell, he didn’t make it easy on the defense by pulling up off-the-dribble against drop coverage.
Here, as the Clippers were building their massive lead, he attacks the 7’4” Boban Marjanović by getting downhill in a hurry. It’s usually a tough task to get a clear look at the basket with Marjanović in the paint, but George uses his long strides to affect the defender’s timing on the contest:
In the fourth quarter, again with Harrell, he’s able to get a burst of speed by receiving a bone-crushing screen from beyond the halfcourt line. This allows George to waltz into open space and get around the Dallas giant with ease. His quickness allows him to draw a foul for the three-point play:
When he shared the court with the starting unit, George was the beneficiary of some smart offensive sets to get him catching on the move. This one stands out the most, as the Clippers set up in “HORNS,” which begins with two shooters in opposite corners and two players stationed at each elbow. The ball-handler (Leonard) is able to dictate what he wants to do with George or Zubac:
On the initial action above, George (right elbow) acts as if he’s setting a ball-screen for Leonard. Instead, he quickly slips out of it, then flows into some flare-screen action with Ivica Zubac on the weak-side. With Hardaway Jr. cognizant of the outside threat, George immediately cuts to the rim. It’s up to Leonard to put the pass right on the money, which he does.
The Clippers tried to run this action a bit earlier in the game, without Leonard on the floor, but Zubac didn’t make contact with the flare screen and Lou Williams doesn’t feel comfortable throwing the pass. The consolation prize is that George spaces to the corner and simply pull-up over the smaller Delon Wright to finish a broken play. There’s not much you can do there:
George also illustrated what his weapon as a ball-screen and dribble-handoff (DHO) scorer can lead to, as he completely fools the defense into thinking he’s using this handoff from Zubac. With Zubac on the move, it’s Dorian Finney-Smith who sells out to blow up the screen. All George has to do is use his length and speed to cut back, drifting into open space:
When he really got into a groove, it was evident he had no concern for who was guarding him in the post. He sizes up Hardaway Jr. before spinning off his body and driving baseline. This is what led to the flagrant foul as George gets raked across the face. By this point, Dallas was overly frustrated:
For the series, George is now 10-0f-16 at the rim while having rough efficiency numbers elsewhere. He’s still just 9-0f-34 on above-the-break threes after nailing a couple pull-up treys in transition on Tuesday.
The remainder of the playoffs are now a major uncertainty with six teams electing to boycott Wednesday’s games to demand justice for the shooting of Jacob Blake.
If the decision is to move forward with games and finish out this playoff run, though, George should have his confidence back at a supreme level after the way he approached Game 5.
Along with an elite offensive package that was just needing a few tweaks, he has a plethora of teammates and coaches pulling him away from any dark place he may find himself in. Marcus Morris, who has been through his own personal struggles on and off the floor, is one of the strongest pillars of support for him.
“At the end of the day, man, he’s a pro,” Morris said. “He knows what he needs, and like I tell him all the time, we’re here for him and we’re going to continue to grow and we’re going to continue to grow as a team and get better.”
I have written about the NBA over the last five years, currently based in the Louisville/Indianapolis area. My previous platforms include BBallBreakdown, HoopsHabit,
I have written about the NBA over the last five years, currently based in the Louisville/Indianapolis area. My previous platforms include BBallBreakdown, HoopsHabit, ClutchPoints, and The Cauldron. After graduating from the University of Louisville in 2017, I have been a freelancer that enjoys analyzing professional basketball through the lens of X’s and O’s, advanced analytics, and all of the various human elements involved in the beautiful game. You will find me covering games and events throughout the NBA schedule in various cities. My goal as a writer is to bring a unique and nuanced level of on-court analysis to an audience that craves it. I’m a fan of backscreens and motion offenses.
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