The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul George is becoming a leading man by necessity. ‘Playoff P’ is becoming less of a joke.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George has emerged as a key player in the Western Conference finals. (Matt York/AP)

Paul George might have spared himself a lot of trouble if he had just not given himself that silly nickname. (Playoff P? Sheesh.) He might have done himself a favor by not getting eliminated from the playoffs two years ago and critiquing the deep three-pointer that sent him home. (“That was a bad shot.”) Maybe if he had just been a little more consistent and less earnest in his assessment of his inconsistencies, George might not repeatedly have his failings amplified and accomplishments diminished.

George exists during a time when social media can be an unforgiving place, where keyboard tough guys fire off venom and viral jokes with impunity. And that has made it difficult to fairly assess and appreciate George. Even now, after a virtuoso performance to stave off elimination and extend the Western Conference finals, George has had to hear about how the Los Angeles Clippers would actually be up 3-2 in the series, rather than down, if he had just made those two free throws near the end of Game 2.

“I just don’t understand why it’s magnified so much when he doesn’t play well, when he has a bad game,” Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue said after George scored a playoff career-high 41 points Monday to improve Lue’s coaching record to 10-2 when facing elimination. “A lot of people play bad. I’m just happy he came back and played a great game. We needed every bit of it.”

Kawhi Leonard, the two-time NBA Finals MVP, wouldn’t have returned home to play for the Clippers had the franchise not mortgaged its future to get George. Leonard hasn’t played since Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against the Utah Jazz. His absence has allowed the Clippers to see exactly what they have in George, who has shouldered more responsibility and relished the opportunity to take the franchise he grew up rooting for farther than it has ever been.

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A former leading man in Indiana, George had spent much of the past four seasons in a sidekick role alongside Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and then Leonard in L.A. The pressure of carrying a franchise seemed overwhelming for George in his final days with the Pacers. He spoke about being a leader and wanting the last shot but often sounded as if he had memorized lines on how to be one. His time as a supporting character, combined with the lessons learned from earlier mistakes, has prepared him for a playoff run that has tested George’s mental toughness at almost every turn.

The Clippers of these playoffs are the opposite of the team that looked entitled and feeble in the bubble last year. That group, led by Doc Rivers, folded under considerable expectations and blew a 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets. George was open about how the strain and anxiety of being isolated from loved ones contributed to his struggles, including that infamous missed three-pointer that hit the side of the backboard in the Clippers’ Game 7 collapse. Playoff P became Wayoff P and Pandemic P.

One season and a new coach later, George dealt with the adversity of an 0-2 hole in the first round against Dallas and bounced back. He dealt with a lot more against Utah — going down 0-2, then losing Leonard — and propelled the Clippers to the conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s 51-year history. He is leading the postseason in points and minutes and has joined Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant as the only players to score at least 20 points in 18 consecutive postseason games. And yet he remains a maligned figure, with nearly every performance, good or bad, turned into a referendum on his career.

“I do,” George said in response to a question about whether he gets unfairly picked on in comparison to other NBA stars. “And it’s the honest truth. It’s a fact. But I can’t worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess. I still try to go and dominate, whether I’m shooting the ball well or not shooting the ball well. … They can judge me on what they want to. That part don’t matter to me. I’m going to go out there and hoop and give it everything I got.”

The postseason is a time when reputations are built, often tattered and, with some luck and perseverance, rebuilt. George’s career started with the highs of being a little-known late lottery pick in Indiana, dunking so hard on Miami Heat center Chris Andersen and dueling so well in the conference finals against a league MVP that LeBron James stopped and gave him dap at half court.

His progress was interrupted by a gruesome career-threatening leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage from which he has recovered so well it is rarely discussed anymore. (The two max contracts extensions that he has signed since are a reflection of how he prevailed.) When he returned, leg permanently crooked as a reminder, the Pacers were largely broken and splintered, leaving him in a role he never fully embraced or felt comfortable occupying.

Bryant became a mentor during George’s rehabilitation, and George tried to mimic how he thought a superstar should behave. His dreams played out better in Gatorade commercials than in the playoffs, and Indiana’s regression to irrelevance pushed him to force his way out. Stops in Oklahoma City and now with the Clippers — and having the audacity to spurn the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency — have made it hard for George to say much of anything without his words becoming land mines, constantly blowing up in his face.

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It started with him asking reporters in Oklahoma City before his postseason debut with the Thunder, “Y’all ain’t met Playoff P yet, huh?” Then-teammate Carmelo Anthony chuckled upon hearing the name, and by the end of that series against the Jazz, George had been outplayed by Joe Ingles. The nickname became a running joke, slapped upon any bad game that followed. The next season, Damian Lillard ended Oklahoma City’s season by burying a shot over George from near the midcourt logo and flippantly waving goodbye. When George complained about the quality of Lillard’s shot, it came off as petty.

“I don’t know where this trolling bulls--- has come from where the Internet controls the narratives about these players. It’s becoming foolish, man,” Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins said of George. “Like I said earlier in the year, that’s one of the most special players to ever lace his shoes up. Give this dude his flowers, man. I don’t understand the slander. It’s becoming quite silly now. Respect these players, man. Respect these greats.”

Back in the conference finals for the first time since those early Indiana days, George has a calm, as if it’s all coming together. That doesn’t mean an end to the blips. Before Suns center Deandre Ayton threw down the last-second dunk now known as the “Valley-oop” in Game 2, George had a double oops that would’ve kept alive his perpetual punching bag status had the Clippers not continued their run as the most resilient team this postseason. They’ve lost Leonard, Serge Ibaka and starting center Ivica Zubac but continue to scrap, saving their best for the most extreme desperation.

“We know that we have a real possibility to do something special, and we’re going to give everything we have,” George said recently. “This team is going to be happy with themselves because so much of the season, we’ve invested so much into each other. We’re going to live with the results, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”