Mere hours after learning that fellow superstar and undisputed team leader Kawhi Leonard will miss the remainder of the Western Conference semifinals, Clippers forward Paul George posted 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists — a playoff stat line without equal in franchise history — as he led L.A. to a stunning Game 5 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Now up 3-2 in the series, the win moves L.A. within just one game of a first-ever visit to the Western Conference finals and puts George on the precipice of rewriting a career playoff narrative brutalized by skeptics and marked by disappointment.
Even ESPN’s hot-take extraordinaire Stephen A. Smith was forced to eat a bit of crow following Wednesday’s game, taking to Twitter (in a sleeveless sweatshirt, no less) to post a praise-filled video about George’s performance and seemingly reversing his prediction, after Game 2, that Utah would not only beat the Clippers but make it to the NBA Finals.
Could Mean No More Talk of Pandemic P
Smith’s short video tweet immediately touched on George’s regrettably self-imposed nickname, Playoff P — a relic from his 2018 season in Oklahoma City that has been routinely weaponized by naysayers to highlight George’s playoff failures. The moniker took an even crueler turn in the aftermath of L.A.’s playoff collapse against Denver last season, which was punctuated by a miserable 5-for-15 shooting performance by George in Game 7. George has since spoken about the depression he suffered while in the bubble.
“Can’t call him Pandemic P or nothing like anymore,” said Smith. “Paul George stepped up tonight. PG-13 stepped up, handled his business. Without Kawhi Leonard, in a hostile environment like Utah, Paul George did his thing. Gotta give him love, gotta give him props.”
With Leonard out indefinitely (replaced in the Game 5 starting lineup by second-year guard Terance Mann) George knows that, for the rest of the series and beyond, he will need to take on an expanded leadership role, something he was permitted to do early in his career as an Indiana Pacer.
“As a young guy, the vets allowed me to lead,” said George. “I dug into that space, coming in trying to lead the team. Being down a big piece that’s irreplaceable, I knew I had to step in and fill some of the holes. That’s just what the mindset was coming into tonight.”
In the first half alone, George grabbed eight rebounds and scored 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting, helping the Clippers bide their time against a Utah squad that made 17-of-30 threes before the break and led by five going into halftime. “We just knew we had to weather it,” said George.
George and the Clippers also had to weather some of their own mistakes in the second half, particularly late in the fourth quarter, after they had taken the lead off the strength of a 32-18 third quarter. Turnovers on consecutive possessions allowed the Jazz to inch within three with 5:46 remaining, but that was as close as they would get.
George effectively sealed the victory with an and-1 on a slick under-and-up jump shot against Royce O’Neale. It was a veteran move, one that is often utilized by Leonard, and O’Neale could do little but shake his head as George sank the ensuing free throw. George only went 3-for-8 in the second half, but was a perfect 8-for-8 from the line, and added four assists and two blocked shots in 23 of 24 possible second-half minutes.
“He was ready to put the team on his back to carry extra weight,” said Reggie Jackson, who along with Marcus Morris picked up much of the remaining scoring slack, dropping 22 and 25 respectively. “I was just proud of his approach, playing through the ups and downs, playing aggressive. Shots were going in early for him, but even when they started not to fall or we were making mistakes, a few turnovers, he just kept playing with conviction. Just go out there and have fun and left it all on the floor. He was incredible.”
Smith: Clippers Need to ‘Close the Deal’
Though Smith had nothing but good things to say about George’s Game 5 performance, particularly given Leonard’s absence, he acknowledged that the Jazz are also at less than full strength.
“Donovan Mitchell ain’t a 100 percent, we can all see that,” said Smith. “Utah ain’t the same when he ain’t 100 percent, we can all see that.”
Mitchell tweaked his ankle during Game 3, a 132-106 Clippers’ win, and has been visibly hobbled in Games 4 and 5, preventing him from utilizing his usual burst and explosiveness at the rim.
“For most of my life I’ve been able to push by, explode by, and jump through people or over people,” Mitchell said afterward. “For the first time in my career, I’ve had to play on the floor.” Mitchell scored 21 points on 6-for-19 shooting in Game 5, his lowest tally so far this postseason and the first time in seven games that he hasn’t eclipsed 30 points. In Game 4, Mitchell scored 37 points but required 26 shots to do so.
Utah is also without their All-Star point guard Mike Conley, who aggravated his Achilles in the last game of the first round and hasn’t played a minute in the Clippers series. The Jazz are hoping to get Conley back if there’s a seventh game, but if Smith’s opinion is to be trusted, the Clippers might not give them the chance.
“Now it’s up to the Clippers to close the deal and get to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, assuming they handle their business Friday night,” said Smith. “You can handle your business in Game 5, you can handle your business in Game 6. But Paul George did his thing.”