Prior to the LA Clippers’ pivotal 119-111 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 5, the team learned of the news that Kawhi Leonard could potentially be out for the remainder of the Western Conference Semifinals due to an ACL injury. Many began to write them off. Instead, the team turned to Paul George to take on the clear-cut No. 1 scorer role, who finished with a game-high 37 points along with 16 rebounds and 5 assists.
“It was no secret, I knew I had to be big tonight and got to be big going forward,” George said, via Tomer Azarly of ClutchPoints. “It was just no secret coming into this, and I just first put faith in God, believed in myself. My teammates trusted me. T-Lue trusted me. And you know, I thought we just lived in the moment and we just played our hearts out tonight.”
George shouldered heavier responsibility as an initiator in pick-and-roll situations while also taking on the role of being the main isolation scoring threat. Kawhi Leonard masterfully filled this role in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs with the greatest example being his dominant Game 6 outing with 45 points, which tied his playoff career-high. With Leonard out, it was George’s turn to get it done.
The Jazz simply lacked an answer for George in isolation situations. Royce O’Neale attempted to take on the challenge of slowing George down as the primary defender but proved ineffective. George got the job done regardless of who was trying to stop him between getting to the rim by using his handle at the point of attack, converting dynamic short-range jumpers, and even dropping in a stepback jumper from beyond the arc.
Not having a big man on the floor while Gobert is playing has turned Utah’s strengths in pick-and-roll coverage into genuine weakness. As a result, another shortcoming from the Jazz defense was O’Neale’s inability to contain George’s dribble penetration when using ball screens. Other times, Rudy Gobert was at George’s mercy when guarding him out on an island.
George has filled the secondary star role for the Clippers and has had to pick his spots throughout games, for the most part. He is more hands-on as the central focus when playing alongside the Clippers’ bench unit throughout games but he showed he can turn back the clock to his mindset from his time with the Indiana Pacers when he was the top option.
“I’ve been in Indiana, where I had to lead a franchise,” George said. “The beauty here is I get to do that with one of the best in the world in Kawhi. Now Kawhi is down. It was just that mindset being back in Indy, having to set the tone and come out and lead a ballclub.
“That’s really the mindset I came out with. It was nothing that I had to prove. It was nothing that I had to be surprised about myself. I just dug into a place that I’ve been already in my career, and it just came down to trust. Everybody just allowed me to lead and they kept pushing me. They just kept me into a great mental space.”
It shouldn’t be understated the degree of difficulty required for Paul George and the Clippers to pull off the victory they achieved in Game 6. The Utah Jazz went a staggering 20-of-54 (37.0%) from beyond the arc. Without Kawhi Leonard, that’s not an easy thing to overcome. It certainly helped that Marcus Morris Sr. (25) and Reggie Jackson (22) stepped up to combine for 47 points, too.
“Our season is alive because of his shouldering of all the work he’s done,” George said. “We got to hold it together and continue to keep this boat afloat until he returns.”
If Paul George can pull off leading the LA Clippers to close out the series, it would go a long way in silencing his detractors. Taking down the No. 1 seed in the whole NBA playoffs in what essentially was a best of 3 series after Kawhi Leonard being sidelined would be a staggering outcome.