Remember all that stuff this website had to say just two days ago about how Kawhi Leonard had reached terrifying new heights and as such the Clippers looked likely to turn the corner on the Jazz and ask them questions they couldn’t answer thanks to their superstar’s arachnoid defense and unshakeable confidence? Well.
That all is no longer on the table, thanks to a weird knee injury that will keep Leonard out for some indeterminate period of time. This is big-time crap, and the suddenness and timing of the Leonard injury—right after Kevin Durant’s moment of perfection—helped coalesce the (true) narrative that these playoffs are an injury minefield, likely to be won by the team that survives rather than the most talented or coherent squad. Lower on the agenda, because they’re a cranky bunch and because nobody really cares about them, was the matter of what becomes of the Clippers now. They had the momentum in the series, though without Leonard, I thought they were short of the necessary juice to beat the Jazz in one of the most hostile arenas in basketball. But Paul George had other plans, winning Game 5 for the Clippers with a sublime performance when he and his team needed it the most.
George notched 37 points, 16 boards, and five dimes for the Clips Wednesday night, shrugging off Royce O’Neale’s attempts at defense while helping his team clamp down on Utah in the third quarter and hold them to just six made buckets in what turned out to be the most decisive frame. He was clearly the best player on the floor, and everything the Clippers did ran through him. This is a role George’s game is suited for, though it has not been one he’s really played all that much since leaving Indiana. In the intervening years, he’s supported Leonard and Russell Westbrook as more of a 1B option. He’s good at that too, though all three of his playoff runs in that setup ended in disasters that have marred George’s reputation. Which was understandable, since all three playoff exits were genuine collapses, though when George got to be the primary guy, he was a total killer for the Pacers. He did this shit when he was 22!
So it’s exhilarating to see him get to take charge again. Without Leonard, the Clippers still have Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson to soak up a ton of possessions (both former Pistons have been huge for L.A.) and Nic Batum to steady the defense, but the cupboard is rather bare beyond thaqt. Rajon Rondo is ailing, Patrick Beverley threw one of the worst passes I’ve seen all playoffs and appears to have lost a step on defense, and the Clippers are almost always running a four-wings lineup with Luke Kennard, Beverley, and Terance Mann juggling the fifth spot. Winning with this crew requires George to go off, and he did. Look how casually he got to his spots and converted.
Can the sustain this level of excellence? History says no, though it’s not like the Jazz have a better answer for George’s one-on-one heroism than they did for Leonard’s. Even if Utah comes out ahead, George’s playoff run has been a satisfying redemption. He’s notched 30 points in each of his team’s three straight wins, and he’s hovering right around 25-10-5 through the entire playoffs. Here’s hoping he can do this one more time.