It didn’t take very long in Thursday night’s game between the Clippers and Pelicans to realize why Paul George was trying to sneak into team scrimmages weeks ago. The six-time All-Star underwent surgery on his right shoulder this offseason, and before Thursday, he hadn’t played in a game since May. “It’s just jokes,” George said last weekend, about his (unsuccessful) attempts to get in on the games. But when you can put up numbers like George did in his Clippers debut against New Orleans, it’s easy to see why he’d be antsy to return.
The patience paid off, though. In just 24 minutes, George dazzled offensively, scoring 33 überefficient points on 17 shots, and adding nine rebounds and four assists in a close 132-127 loss to New Orleans.
Beyond George’s impressive output, the circumstances surrounding the game made it difficult to come away with many solid conclusions about his performance—or either of the teams’. The Pelicans were missing Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and Jahlil Okafor (as well as Zion Williamson, who has yet to play this season as he recovers from a knee injury). And on the Clippers side, Leonard sat out the second night of a back-to-back due to what L.A. is calling “left knee injury management,” Landry Shamet was out with an ankle injury, and Patrick Beverley missed the game with a calf injury. Head coach Doc Rivers resorted to using 10 players and a plethora of different lineups. Still, the one unignorable takeaway from this game was George’s scoring—and more notably, the myriad ways in which he did it.
Whereas Leonard’s powerful gravitational force tethers both opposing defenders and his own teammates to his moves, George’s game blends right into whatever background you provide for it. Thursday was a perfect example of his ability to impact the game “on all three levels,” as Rivers calls it. George backed down smaller players in the post and buried turnaround jumpers in their faces. He curled off of screens and hit 3s in one motion, pulled up from beyond the arc with ease, and dribbled into jumpers with his fluid, I can’t believe it’s not butter-like smoothness. He used high screens from Ivica Zubac to drive into the paint, his long frame making it easy to draw plenty of fouls. Last season, George averaged seven trips to the line per game, which was a career high. If Thursday night was any indication, though, that figure could increase this year: He went 10-for-10 from the line.
Whatever perceived learning curve George expected to deal with in his first game back was mostly nonexistent on one end of the court. He gave a complete offensive performance that may somehow be just a tease of what’s to come. After all, George played only 24 minutes and was in foul trouble for a good portion of that (he had four fouls at halftime), which naturally slowed him down. That, along with poor interior defense, cost the Clippers the game. “I thought I was terrible,” George said postgame, referring to his flow within the game.
Still, if this is what a terrible version of George looks like, the Clippers are in for a treat on multiple fronts. Defensively, he should make a strong unit (10th in the league in defensive rating entering Thursday) even stronger, and on offense, he’s going to deliver exactly what the team has been lacking.
Coming into the matchup against the Pelicans, the Clippers were bottom 10 in the NBA in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. As a team, they were shooting 32.2 percent from 3—good for 27th in the league. George hit three of his five 3s on Thursday and drew plenty of double-teams, which opened up his teammates to hit 3s themselves. It was exactly the kind of shotmaking Rivers and the rest of the Clippers have been raving about in practices.
And once Leonard joins him on the floor—which should happen on Saturday night against the Hawks—George could become even more potent. He’ll benefit from Leonard’s improved playmaking ability (think of all the open shots!), and in turn he can lessen Kawhi’s load by guarding the opposing team’s best player and providing reliable scoring from the outside in.
That’s a boost Leonard could use. After averaging nearly 30 points on 47.4 percent shooting from the field in his first six games this season, Leonard’s numbers have dropped to 22 points on 36.2 percent shooting over his past three games. And in a loss to Houston on Wednesday, he broke the 40-minute mark for the first time this season. In other words, the one-man dam may be one of the three best players in basketball right now, but he was already starting to show cracks. George’s return seems to be coming at the perfect time, just as Leonard’s reasoning for wanting to pair up with him started to become clear.
Picturing Leonard and George together paints a fantasy that’s not too dissimilar to what the 9-2 Lakers are enjoying right now with Anthony Davis and LeBron James. And it’s safe to say that the Clippers have the upper hand in terms of overall team depth. They just need to get their top-end talent back to form to complete the vision—be it in a month or come playoff time when it matters most. To get to that reality, though, both fans and George himself will have to be patient a little while longer.