Paul George was ready for his moment. His self-proclaimed “Playoff P” nickname didn’t seem quite so ridiculous after a brilliant performance in Oklahoma City’s 116-108 victory over Utah in Game 1 of their first-round series on Sunday. George was the best player on both sides of the floor, scoring 36 points and grabbing seven rebounds while playing dominant perimeter defense. The never-ending referendum on Russell Westbrook, his personality, and his style of play has dominated the discussion about the Thunder this season. George has a chance to become a superstar in his own right in these playoffs. (George missed the final minute of Game 1 with a right hip contusion but said afterward that he’d be ready to go for Wednesday’s Game 2.)
Utah had no answer for him on Sunday. There’s not much any defender can do when a player as big as George (6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) can raise up off the dribble and knock down 3s. He probably won’t shoot 8-for-11 from 3 again in this series, but there’s no reason to expect him to cool down much when he shot 40.1 percent from 3 on 7.7 attempts per game this season. George is one of the best pure shooters in the NBA. He was behind only James Harden in total 3s made, and behind only Klay Thompson in 3-point percentage among players in the top 15 of total attempts.
Even more impressive than his percentages in Game 1 were the types of 3s he made. It wasn’t just spot-ups. George made pull-up 3s off the dribble, coming around screens off the ball, and with defenders draped all over him. The Jazz had the no. 2 defense in the NBA this season, and they threw the kitchen sink at him: Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale all had their chances at guarding George. He even hit several tough shots over the outstretched arms of Rudy Gobert, the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year.
George had just as big an impact on defense, where Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan sicced him on Ingles. Mitchell is Utah’s leading scorer and Rubio is the team’s leading assist man, but Ingles is the catalyst for its offense. He’s a knockdown shooter and a brilliant passer who spaces the floor, moves the ball, and creates easy shots for his teammates. He scored 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, but most of his damage came in transition and when the defense was rotating in the half court. He couldn’t create any separation off the dribble against George, who was glued to his jersey, fighting over screens, and never allowing him to get into the lane. After averaging 4.8 assists on 1.9 turnovers a game this season, Ingles had only one assist on two turnovers on Sunday.
George’s ability to dictate matchups allows him to raise his game in the playoffs. There are few players he can’t match up with. His size and speed can allow him to at least bother the shot of even the biggest players, while he can take a smaller one out of a series completely. Even initiating the offense is difficult against George, since he’s so big that it’s hard to get a body on him to set a screen. On the other end of the floor, as Utah found out on Sunday, he’s a great shooter who can almost always create a look for himself.
It’s easy to forget just how good George has been in the playoffs before. As a 23-year-old, he was the best player on an Indiana team that took Miami to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. He outdueled LeBron James in several of those games, even though the Pacers were a defensive-minded group that played a more traditional inside-out style of offense that didn’t give him much room to attack. The team fell apart after he suffered a gruesome leg injury at a Team USA minicamp in the following year’s offseason, and he spent the next few seasons treading water. Even then, he still took Toronto to a Game 7 almost single-handedly in 2016, averaging 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.0 steals a game in the series, while terrorizing DeMar DeRozan on defense.
Before this season, George had never played with anyone like Westbrook. This is the first time in his career when George hasn’t had to do everything by himself. Roy Hibbert was the second-best player in Indiana, while Lance Stephenson was the team’s second-most-effective playmaker. In Oklahoma City, George can focus on what he does best: hunting for his own shot and playing lockdown defense. The two Thunder stars spent most of the season feeling each other out, as George had to learn how to play off one of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history. He’s versatile enough to make it work. George averaged 21.9 points per game this season despite touching the ball only 56.7 times per game. George, Thompson, C.J. McCollum, and small-sample-size king MarShon Brooks were the only 20-point scorers in the league to average fewer than 60 touches.
Everything in Oklahoma City depends on Westbrook and George, since the mix around them is far from ideal. Carmelo Anthony was supposed to make them a Big Three, but he’s strictly a role player at this point in his career. While Steven Adams has emerged as one of the best big men in the league, he depends on his stars to create shots for him. Ray Felton is the only other shot creator on the roster, and none of the remaining wing players is a consistent two-way player. The Thunder are 28th in assists this season, and 23rd in 3-point percentage. Their formula for success is playing elite defense and then riding Westbrook and George as far as they can carry them on offense.
The result has been an ugly brand of basketball. Westbrook and George aren’t as consistent as James Harden and Chris Paul, who have been brilliant in a similar isolation-heavy offense in Houston. George doesn’t have the handle to get around elite defenders in tight spaces, so he will settle for contested jumpers, and there are times when he forces shots instead of making the extra pass. He barely averages more assists per game (3.3) than turnovers (2.7), and he’s not a particularly efficient player. He shoots 33.8 percent from the field on long 2s, and he takes 25.8 percent of his shots from that area of the floor. Harden, in comparison, takes only 11 percent of his shots from that same range.
George doesn’t have a way to manufacture easy offense on nights when his jumper isn’t falling. He had 12 games this season in which he shot less than 27 percent from the field. He scored five points on 1-of-14 shooting in an ugly loss to Golden State on February 24, and two points on 1-of-12 shooting in an embarrassing defeat to Dallas in November. The difference from his days in Indiana is that he could always shoot his way out of a slump with the Pacers, since they had no one else who could pick up the slack. George scored 28 points a game on 38.6 percent shooting in their four-game sweep at the hands of Cleveland in last year’s playoffs. He could disappear completely on offense if he shoots that poorly in a game over the next few weeks.
Utah head coach Quin Snyder will likely force George to be more of a playmaker in the rest of the series. He didn’t play a flawless game on Sunday: He had zero assists and four turnovers, shot 5-of-9 from 2-point range, and went to the free throw line only twice. The easiest adjustment the Jazz can make is running him off the 3-point line and trapping him when he comes off screens. George will have to make quick decisions against a smart and aggressive defense, while his teammates will have to knock down open shots and make the right plays in 4-on-3 situations. Utah can’t afford to let him beat them as a shooter.
The burden will only get bigger for George if Oklahoma City advances. Looming in the second round is a potential series with Houston. George will have to start the game on either Paul or Harden, and he will need to fight over screens to prevent Carmelo and Adams from being left on an island against them. On the other end of the floor, he will have to pace their offense in what could be a shootout, while scoring over elite perimeter defenders like Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker. Harden, Paul, and Westbrook are all much bigger stars than George, but none would have more two-way responsibility in that series.
It’s the opportunity that George has spent his entire career waiting for. He was a three-star recruit who played for Fresno State in college, a middling program in the Mountain West Conference. He was a relatively anonymous player when the Pacers took him with the no. 10 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Nothing has been given to him. George had to earn his way onto the floor as a defensive specialist, and he didn’t average more than 15 field goal attempts per game until his fourth season in the NBA. Just when it seemed like he had reached the mountaintop, a freak injury nearly ruined his career. He has spent the past four years working on his game, waiting for another chance to play on a contender.
George is the real unknown in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is an incredibly polarizing player, but that’s partly because we know him so well. He has spent his entire career dominating the ball on one of the most high-profile teams in the NBA. The last time George was on an elite team, he was a 23-year-old still figuring out who he was as a player. He’s now a 27-year-old in the prime of his career, and we have never seen what he can do with a legitimate costar. He has the talent to put the Thunder on his back. Now he just has to do it.