Nine games into this trying season, at the end of Paul George’s brilliant 39-point effort, Phoenix Suns stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul disparaged their Los Angeles Clippers counterpart in defeat, calling him “soft” in a fracas that required referees and players to quell the tension.
Afterward, George said, “I had a tough year last year. People think it's sweet, man, people think it's sweet because I was down. I didn't hear none of this in my 10 years in the league, but people living on that last year. And I got to answer that. I'm ready to compete. I'm back."
The Suns were pretty clearly joining the chorus of ex-players and fans who mockingly called George “Pandemic P” in the wake of his dismal performance in the bubble, where he publicly admitted, “I was just in a dark place” from anxiety and depression — a concession other players and media privately made after months isolated under heavy coronavirus protocols in Orlando.
Almost a year removed from entering the quarantined campus and six months from being berated by his fellow All-Stars, George delivered a signature achievement in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, scoring 41 points, including 30 on 10-of-12 shooting in the second half of a 116-102 win that cut the Suns’ series lead to 3-2 going back to L.A. on Wednesday.
“I don't know where this trolling bulls*** has come from where the internet controls the narratives about these players,” Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins told reporters after adding 15 points off the bench. “It's becoming foolish, man. Like I said earlier in the year, that's one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up. Give this dude his flowers, man. I don't understand the slander. It's becoming quite silly now. Respect these players, man. Respect these greats.”
It wasn’t just the internet. Former Suns star Charles Barkley responded to George’s openness last year by saying, “We're never in a dark place," and former Suns player Raja Bell also added, "Keep that s*** to yourself, bro. Nobody wants to hear that." We can only begin to imagine how cathartic Monday’s 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against Phoenix were for George.
Asked again after Game 5 if he feels like he catches more flak from the outside world than most other stars around the league, George said, “I do. And it's the honest truth. It's a fact.” And it is.
Whether George gets the last laugh remains to be seen, but his redemption is worth celebrating, both as remarkable play from a remarkable basketball player on the game’s biggest stage and for his strength in the face of mental health struggles experienced through international scrutiny.
Following George’s two missed free throws at the conclusion of Game 2 and his inefficient Game 4, the “Pandemic P” jokes — born from the seven-time All-Star dubbing himself “Playoff P” before a five-point outing in a first-round close-out Game 6 loss to the Utah Jazz in 2018 — saw a resurgence.
Heck, he caught them from the most shameful corner of sports media during Game 5.
This since George carried the Clippers to the conference finals without two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The disrespect has far exceeded the respect he deserves.
As George put the finishing touches on Monday’s drubbing of the Suns in hostile territory, ESPN flashed a graphic featuring George alongside Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, the only other players to score 20+ points in their first 18 games of a playoff run. Jordan did it thrice, Durant twice, and each time one of his predecessors did it, he reached the NBA Finals.
None of this is to say George’s résumé has reached the level of those legends. Far from it. The slander, though, comes from folks who for some reason expect him to perform like them nightly.
“I am who I am,” he said on a night that raised his playoff average to 27.2 points per game on 44/34/84 shooting splits. “I wish I could shoot 80%, 75%, on a nightly basis, but it's not realistic.”
George was an unranked recruit coming out of L.A.’s Knight High in 2008, signed to Fresno State some four hours away and turned himself into a lottery pick within two years. He slid to 10th in the 2010 draft, behind Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson and Ekpe Udoh. He averaged 7.8 points per game as a rookie, mostly coming off the bench for the 37-win Indiana Pacers. Two more years later, he was going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals.
It is upon those back-to-back meetings with a Miami Heat super-team at ages 22 and 23 that he has been judged ever since, as if he was supposed to be that guy all along — as if his return from a shattered leg in the summer of 2014 to again become an elite NBA player was expected.
“I hear LeBron say he's not 100% and won't ever be 100% again,” George, 31, said on Monday night. “I thought about it, like, man, that was stripped from me as well. It's tough. I definitely lost some things. Even with the shoulder surgeries, I lost a little bit. But it's part of this game, and you have to take it. You have to roll with it and you have to be able to adapt. You just keep it moving. But it is tough, going through these injuries, rehabbing, finding a way to be yourself again.”
Paul George is not LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has been named third-team All-NBA five times since 2013. The other forwards on those teams were David Lee, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jimmy Butler, slotted on occasion behind Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Draymond Green. They were considered closer to his peers.
Among them, only Butler has joined George as the best player on a conference finalist. With Leonard sidelined in Games 5 and 6 of the Clippers’ second-round win over the Jazz, George now counts himself as the alpha on three such teams across both conferences. The only other All-Star on the Pacers roster he twice led opposite James with the East on the line was Roy Hibbert, and his co-star on a team that is now within two games of the Finals is Reggie Jackson.
“I'm glad he had the opportunity to be able to lead the team. We want Kawhi. We all love Kawhi,” Clippers forward Marcus Morris (22 points) said of George. “But I'm happy for him as a player to be able to lead the team and show everybody what he's got, because there's always a lot of chatter about how he plays and the things he does. But no one really watches the day-to-day work that he puts in and the kind of teammate he is and the kind of player he is and how he is leading us. We're dropping guys, and he's having 41-point damn near triple-doubles and averaging 17 rebounds and s*** like that. You have to give credit when it's due.”
We have rightfully lauded Chris Paul — a nine-time first- or second-team All-NBA selection — for coming this close to his first Finals appearance at age 36. He is widely considered a fierce competitor and fiery leader, and his own playoff collapse with the Clippers six years ago has long since been forgiven by basketball intelligentsia, but the smears kept coming for George.
They kept coming, partly because of nights like his 10 points in the Game 7 loss that capped a blown 3-1 series lead in the bubble, and partly because he was so open about his struggles.
"I immediately went straight to a dark place of where I had nothing but to get better,” he said in January. “That was the only thing on my mind, and the only thing was to get better. Almost two years removed from having my shoulders operated on. ... So, I’m just in a healthier mind state."
It is easy to crack jokes when a man shows weakness and far harder to applaud him for finding strength from it. If you were quick to criticize George following his 4-for-17 effort in a Game 1 loss last round, what say you now that he just entered his playoff career-high in a must-win conference finals game — for a Clippers team down three starters that has already erased a pair of 2-0 deficits and just set a single-season record for wins when trailing in a series, no less?
Paul George has exceeded all expectations for who he was supposed to be, and it is about time we start appreciating him for who he is — arguably the most resilient star of an NBA generation.
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