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What Will Paul George Do With His Second Chance?

George had arguably the best game of his career in Game 5 against the Jazz. What would he do for an encore in Game 6?

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

The NBA playoffs are unforgiving. They are an emotional rollercoaster capable of producing the highest of highs and lowest of lows, sometimes only 48 hours apart. The postseason is a war of attrition, as well as a mental, physical, and emotional challenge. And on top of all of that, how players perform in desperate moments typically ends up as the basis for how their careers are judged, however fair or unfair that may be.

The Clippers aren’t necessarily in a desperate moment headed into their Game 6 matchup with the Jazz, sporting a 3–2 lead and an opportunity to close out the No. 1 seed in the league at home. Los Angeles is in an interesting position. With a knee injury sidelining two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the expectations for the Clippers are perhaps the lowest they’ve been since Leonard and Paul George joined forces in the wee hours of a July night in 2019. It’s almost the exact opposite situation than the one the Clips found themselves in a year ago, when they were a title favorite who collapsed after building a 3–1 lead in the second round.

Without Kawhi, LA’s title hopes have taken a significant hit. The Clippers’ Game 5 win in Utah was shocking, and the team is playing with house money against a Jazz squad notably dealing with its own injury issues. It’s been a topsy-turvy playoff run for the Clips—multiple 2–0 deficits, superstar explosions from Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic, a Game 7 win in Round 1, and now the Leonard injury. All of it has set up a redemption narrative for George, who after a dispiriting performance in The Bubble, has been a much better player in the 2021 run. George had arguably the best game of his career in Game 5 against the Jazz. And now, after laying an egg against the Nuggets in a Game 7 loss, he has a second chance to absolve himself in the court of playoff public opinion.

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Rarely are stars gifted a second chance such as the one George has in front of him headed into Game 6. When PG engineered his exit from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles—only one summer after signing an extension—he invited with that move the scrutiny that comes with forming a superteam. Players are well within their rights to make bold plays for championships. It’s also fair to expect them to deliver when they go to great lengths to create such situations. George got what he asked for last year when the Clips had their backs against the wall in the postseason, a chance to prove his superstar resolve in a big moment. Ultimately, both him and Kawhi failed on that promise.

George faces a similar situation right now, only one with significantly less pressure. For starters, PG in general has been better this postseason than last. Compared to 2020, George is averaging more points, assists, and rebounds per game while shooting better from three and the field overall in his second playoff run with LA. The criticism surrounding him has already been quieted to a degree. And now with Leonard out, the Clips have gone from contender to underdog—or at least underdog-adjacent—in a short period of time. PG maybe wouldn’t be given a pass if he had a subpar performance in Game 6, but if he were to struggle it would be a lot more understandable than it was a season ago.

So what will George do with another bite at the apple? Once again, it’s a moment for him to relish. Game 6 is a blank page and PG can write his own myth if he’s able to bring the Clippers to their first conference finals without the help of a legendary playoff performer by his side. It may not be what George wanted when he joined up with Kawhi in the first place. But with great burden comes great reward. PG can become a playoff hero less than a year after the nadir of his postseason career, with a wider freedom to fail that he didn’t have in the past.

It’s almost always silly to make any one game a referendum on someone’s career. George, for all his up-and-downs the last three seasons, has been consistently very good to great on both ends of the floor for nearly a decade now, and 2020 was realistically the first time he was so largely responsible for his team’s exit. Then again, that’s the nature of the playoffs. Game 6 will either provide the Clippers’ highest high yet or the low of having to face a Game 7 on the road. George has a rare second chance to prove he can not only perform his best in a high stakes moment, but also do it as the leading man. If he comes through this time, he may be forgiven for his past struggles, however fair or unfair that may be.

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