A simple Twitter search of the phrase “Paul George“ does not yield flattering results. Which Paul George will show up tonight? Will PG lead the Mavs to victory again? Pandemic P. It’s become en vogue to pile on the Clippers star, whose first-round series against the Mavericks has left a lot to be desired. George, after averaging 21.5 points per game during the regular season, is averaging only 15.3 points per game in the series. In addition to being outscored by Seth Curry, George has shot only 27.3% from the field in conference quarterfinals, while still hoisting a robust 17 field goals a night. It’s not easy being PG-13 right now. Then again, this is what he wanted.
George is not the first superstar to seek greener pastures in a sunnier city, and he certainly won’t be the last. He did rather brazenly ask out of Oklahoma City only one year after signing an extension (and smoking cigars with Russell Westbrook to celebrate.) His unfinished business with the Thunder quickly turned into a new project with the Clippers, one that comes with all the trappings of being a superteam. As soon as the current version of the Clips were formed in the wee hours of the night, they immediately became the favorite because of the promise of what they offered on paper. Elite wing defense. Elite shooting. Depth. And two stars hardened by years of postseason battles with their contemporaries. The burden of being the favorite is a new level of pressure and stakes, and that’s what George must overcome as he navigates through his playoff abyss, which now includes multiple years of head-scratching performances.
It would be reductive to say pressure is the only reason George has struggled against the Mavs. Last season, there was a direct correlation between PG’s dip in play and the shoulder injury he sustained midseason. Is George getting the shots he wants right now? How much of a toll is defending the best offense in the league taking on him? How is he handling the mental aspect of living in the bubble? There are always going to be a few factors at play when someone as talented as George suddenly isn’t living up to their own standards. But the resultant situation is that PG is now under probably the most intense spotlight he’s ever been in in his career. And he should be grateful for it.
Isn’t this what Paul George wanted? To play for a team that mattered? To have his performance be the deciding factor in if a team was good enough to contend for a championship? PG has played for some great teams, but never ones who were expected on Day 1 of the season to be the last one standing. His early 2010s Pacers teams were tough, but they ran into historical greatness in the Big 3 Heat. His Thunder partnership with Russell Westbrook was short-lived, and while they were expected to compete, no one considered them a serious threat to the Kevin Durant-led Warriors.
George has never had a target on his back as much as he’s had with the Clippers. And he should relish it. His back is against the wall. People are doubting if he can be a successful postseason performer. His self-proclaimed nickname of “Playoff P” hasn’t exactly worked out. This is ultimately all better than playing for teams for which merely putting up a fight in a conference finals would have been a success.
The NBA’s championship-or-bust mentality in general can be a little grating at times. Teams can still be successful if they aren’t lifting the trophy at the end of the year. But supersquads asked to be judged a little differently when they form to put themselves in the championship conversation. George invited this level of dissection when he asked the Clippers and Thunder to move heaven, earth, and several first-round picks to get him to Los Angeles. Granted, he probably wasn’t expecting a first-round gut check against a team now missing its second best player, but these are the kinds of moments PG was asking for.
These are the moments all players should want. You’re in the spotlight. Your team needs you. And because of your talent, the expectations are high. For years, Paul George openly pined to get back to Los Angeles. Last summer, he finally did it, with a Finals MVP as his running mate for good measure. For years, what Paul George wanted was to be in the situation he’s in now. All that’s left is for him to realize that.