LOS ANGELES — It’s fitting that, merely three games into his tenure as a Clipper, Paul George’s first signature moment in Los Angeles came from beyond the arc. With just over 25 seconds remaining in an eventual, 90–88 win over the Thunder, George curled around a Montrezl Harrell screen for a go-ahead three pointer. The shot put the Clips ahead for good, and while it wasn’t PG’s smoothest outing of the season, the clutch make could be the first sign of how lethal the Clippers can be when their Death Star is fully operational.
The biggest concern surrounding George heading into this year was whether or not he could recapture the form he had from the first half of last season. It’s no secret that PG looked like a completely different player after injuring his shoulders in late February, ultimately leading to surgery in the summer. George has already credited his health with the reason for his hot start to 2019. L.A.’s win over the Thunder was the first game in which PG didn’t score at least 30 points, but he still produced an efficient night from the field, hitting 7-of-14 shots, including 3-of-7 from three. It’s the long-range marksmanship that’s been most impressive for George in the incredibly limited time he’s been on the court so far. Through three games, he’s hit 12-of-23 triples, or 52.2%.
The biggest question mark for George this season was how his shooting would look after his efficiency troubles near the end of his time with the Thunder. After injuring his shoulders, PG shot only 33.8% on threes from late February through the end of last regular season—a steep dropoff from the 40.2% he was shooting while healthy.
“I know it was a problem,” George’s former coach Billy Donovan said of George’s shoulders Monday before the game. “You can’t go from where he was last year and have the drop that he did. There’s no question he was limited.”
It’s worth noting that yes, PG’s current hot streak could very well be a meaningless blip in a long season. It would be foolish to extrapolate his current numbers over the rest of the year and expect him to keep up anywhere near this torrid pace. But the fact that George already feels this comfortable, and hasn’t yet had the luxury of playing with Kawhi Leonard, has to be incredibly troublesome for the rest of the league.
George played himself into the MVP conversation last year, and it was in large part because of his long-distance shooting. He was taking a high volume of threes—nearly 10 per game—and connecting at an impressive clip. That was happening in spite of the Thunder’s shoddy spacing. George basically created room for himself, especially via pull-up threes, a weapon in his arsenal he hasn’t even begun to fully deploy this season. PG rather quickly seems capable of at least approaching the numbers he put up last year, which in turn begins to assuage some concerns about whether his shooting drop-off was injury or sustainability related.
It’s not difficult to let your mind wander from here. The Clips already have a top-10 offense—what happens when George’s minutes restriction is lifted and he can really cut loose? What if he starts hitting pull ups with the same regularity he did last season? What happens when Kawhi starts shooting closer to his career average from three as well? How are teams supposed to deal with the shooting prowess of George and Kawhi’s individual brilliance, all while keeping an eye on the still-hilariously effective Lou Williams-Harrell pick-and-roll?
These were the questions coaches feared when PG and Kawhi teamed up this summer, and if George is looking this healthy this soon into his comeback, those fears may be realized much sooner rather than later. It would be one thing if PG was basically chucking up shots in an attempt to find his rhythm with Kawhi sidelined. The fact that he’s playing within the system, putting up gaudy numbers, and quickly quelling concerns about his injury outlook will keep opposing coaches up at night.
This is not to say the Clippers have a perfect situation and they should immediately be etched in stone as a Finals participant. Kawhi and PG still actually have to play with each other and figure out how to best optimize their talents. George hasn’t proven without a doubt he’s picking up where he left off pre-injury. And Leonard’s own load management/health situation will be a storyline throughout the season.
But George’s first three games have given a small glimpse of how terrifying the Clippers can be at their best. If PG can pick up shooting where he left off while healthy, that means L.A. is very much receiving the MVP-level George that tore through the NBA for five months last season. And PG starting to answer the lingering questions about his shot this soon into his Clippers tenure—without the benefit of Kawhi—doesn’t bode well for the rest of the league.