Is Clippers’ superstar Paul George playing the best basketball of his career? A film study

Paul George continues to meet the moment.

With Kawhi Leonard sidelined indefinitely due to right knee management, George is playing some of the best and most efficient basketball of his career. George earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors after averaging 32.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals against the Houston Rockets (twice), San Antonio Spurs, and Utah Jazz. The Clippers went 3-1 in those games, then won their fourth game in five tries by edging the Cleveland Cavaliers 119-117 on Monday.

George’s efficiency has stood out in the biggest moments, and that was the case again in Monday’s win. With the score tied at 112 with 40.5 seconds left, George refused to settle for a shot outside of the paint. Reggie Jackson sets a down screen to get George open at the top of the key from Terance Mann’s inbound. George wasted no time, munching on Isaac Okoro for a go-ahead 3-point play in the paint; it was George’s only field goal attempt inside the arc over the last 21 minutes of the game, and his first free-throw attempt by him.

“Quick two-for-one, and PG was able to get down the lane and get an and-1,” Lue said after Monday’s game. “Put us up three with another possession. So that was great execution.”

George finished with 26 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field and 5-of-11 3s. It was his fifth straight game with at least 25 points while making at least 50 percent of his field goals in each game. This is the longest streak of games where George has made at least 50 percent of his field goals and scored at least 25 points in his career.

But George’s recent hot streak started a week earlier. The Clippers entered Halloween against the Rockets on a four-game losing streak. With just under 90 seconds to play and the Clippers trailing 93-88, George spearheaded a 7-0 run to call game. His ability to hit contested shots outside the paint in isolation — a game-tying 3 over Kevin Porter Jr., a game-winning baseline midrange shot over Eric Gordon — made the difference.

The 3 over Porter came from the same after-timeout set as George’s go-ahead field goal against the Cavaliers: a Jackson off-ball screen for George with shooters in each corner. George was supposed to get a quick two there as well, but he felt like he could comfortably shoot the 3 over the shorter defender. George’s game-winner over another shorter defender, Gordon, came on a set where Luke Kennard emptied the corner out, giving none of Gordon’s teammates an opportunity to help as George drove to his strong hand.

Another aspect of George’s play as of late showcases his position to make plays for his teammates.

Of George’s 26 assists over the last five games, eight have been to center Ivica Zubac, more than any other Clipper. The Clippers typically have strong spacing despite the subpar 3-point shooting from the team to start the season; 10 of George’s other 18 assists resulted in 3s. Zubac has been an outstanding roller for George, and the Clippers have gone to George/Zubac pick-and-rolls when they need a bucket.

This play in San Antonio shows how the Clippers take advantage of George’s playmaking out of a timeout. Jackson gets it to George in a position where George is going to the basket with Zubac. It’s basically a two-on-one with the much smaller Tre Jones beaten following an off-ball screen from John Wall, leaving center Zach Collins to defend against George potentially going to the rim as a scorer or George making a play to Zubac. George gets it to Zubac before he either hit the restricted area, with Zubac finishing over Collins as well as a hesitant Josh Richardson, who was snatched to Morris in the weakside corner.

In the last five games, George’s defense has stood out as part of his Player of the Week campaign. George had six steals against the Rockets on Halloween to begin what was a three-game win streak.
Against the Jazz, the Clippers struggled with George off the floor. In those 10 minutes without George, the Clippers allowed 119 points per 100 possessions. The Jazz weren’t nearly as efficient offensively when George was on the floor, scoring only 106.3 points per 100 possessions in George’s 38 minutes.

This play in particular shows how difficult it can be to run offense with George on the floor. George starts the possession on guard Collin Sexton. The Clippers had a small lineup on the floor and switched everything, so when Sexton had his pick of screens between Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, he went to Markkanen’s side. As Markkanen rolled, Morris switched out to Sexton, with George switching onto Markkanen in the paint. Sexton thought that the 7-foot Markkanen had the advantage and tried to float a pass to him inside with the floor spread. But that doesn’t fly with George around the ball.

George also got away with one defensively. This next clip is notable because it shows how pivotal George’s defensive versatility is to the Clippers this season, especially with Leonard working his way back.

Cavaliers point guard Darius Garland drove on Jackson with George shadowing All-Star center Jarrett Allen; the Cavaliers had shooters in both corners and Donovan Mitchell above the weakside break, and Mitchell had made eight 3s. Once again, the Clippers were in a small lineup, with even less size (Nicolas Batum wasn’t in the game, while Norman Powell was). Garland wrapped a pass back to Allen inside from under the basket, and George forced Allen into a missed shot.

The “Last Two Minute Report” determined that George should have been called for a foul, so it was a bad break for the Cavaliers. But the sequence demonstrated George’s ability and willingness to protect the rim at this stage of his career.

Offense, defense, inside, outside. Making plays for himself, making plays for others. Early, often, late. George’s play has lifted the Clippers over .500 after a four-game losing streak, and he has come a long way since a rough Week 2 that saw him miss one game in Oklahoma City due to illness and record a minus-25 in the other game at Oklahoma City. Just like last season, George is hitting his stride as the calendar flips into November.

“My body feels really good,” George said. “Done a ton of work of stretching and soft tissue work that has really allowed me to feel loose and free on the court. Four days of being in bed sick was tough on me going into that OKC game. Just was a little stiff. Now being able to move and move more freely just gave me a ton of confidence on the court to be able to do the things I can do.”

Ideally, George won’t have to be at his best every night for the Clippers to win. But George playing well for extended stretches will be critical towards the Clippers’ goal of winning a championship seven months from now.

(Photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

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