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Who’s The Real ‘Playoff P’?

In Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George had what for most star-caliber players would be an unusual game. George’s shot on Saturday was way off the mark; he finished the evening just 5 of 20 from the field and 1 of 9 from beyond the 3-point line — and despite being an 84.7 percent free-throw shooter for his career, he went just 12 of 18 at the stripe.

And yet, if you were to remove the field goals made and attempted from his box score, it might look like George in fact had an excellent night: 23 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and a steal in 42 minutes played. Dig into the matchup data on Second Spectrum, and you’d also find that George defended four different players1 on five or more halfcourt possessions, and those players combined for four points on nine shots while the Suns scored at a rate of about 70 points per 100 possessions.2

For George, this type of game is actually nothing out of the ordinary. The man who once dubbed himself “Playoff P” has played in 106 playoff games during his 11-year career, and he’s shot 40 percent from the field or worse in 56 of them.

Some of those games came early in his career when he was a supporting player on the Indiana Pacers, but in 48 of the 56, George attempted at least 10 shots. That means that as a share of his total playoff games, George has shot 40 percent or worse on at least 10 attempts 45.3 percent of the time. Among all NBA players with at least 100 playoff games played during the 3-point era (since 1979-80), only one player has tallied those high-volume, low-quality games more often: George’s former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, Russell Westbrook.

Paul George has been hit or miss in the playoffs

NBA players with at least 100 playoff games since 1980 with a high-volume, low-quality (HVLQ)* shooting output in at least 30 percent of those games

Playoff games
Rk Player Total HVLQ Share HVLQ games
1 Russell Westbrook 111 57 51.4%
2 Paul George 106 48 45.3
3 Klay Thompson 123 53 43.1
4 Joe Johnson 120 50 41.7
5 Dennis Johnson 141 54 38.3
6 Jason Kidd 158 59 37.3
7 Richard Hamilton 130 48 36.9
8 Chauncey Billups 146 53 36.3
9 Clyde Drexler 145 52 35.9
10 Paul Pierce 170 59 34.7
11 Dirk Nowitzki 145 48 33.1
12 James Harden 137 45 32.8
13 Scottie Pippen 208 67 32.2
14 Stephen Curry 112 34 30.4

*High-volume, low-quality shooting games are those with a field-goal percentage of 40 percent or worse on at least 10 shot attempts.

Data through June 26, 2021.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

It’s not exactly surprising that George would have some awful shooting games; he’s always been a bit of a streaky player. When Jack Renshaw-Lewis of Nylon Calculus looked into scoring consistency back in 2019, George popped up as the 10th least-consistent player among 97 who had career averages in excess of 20 points per 36 minutes.3


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But just as he remained productive in other areas against the Suns on Saturday, George had almost always found other ways to contribute in his previous disastrous shooting games. In fact, he’d arguably been slightly more productive in those contests than in the ones where he did not shoot as poorly, despite carrying a similar minute load.

George can deliver when he’s not shooting

Paul George’s playoff output in high-volume, low-quality* shooting games versus all other postseason games

Games MIN REB AST STL TOV FTA
High-volume, low-quality 40.1 8.1 4.7 1.4 3.2 6.9
All other playoff games 39.4 7.1 3.9 1.6 3.2 6.1

*High-volume, low-quality shooting games are those with a field-goal percentage of 40 percent or worse on at least 10 shot attempts.

Through June 26, 2021.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Of course, it hasn’t been all bad for George in the postseason. According to Second Spectrum, he’s held players like Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Paul Millsap, John Wall and DeMar DeRozan to below-expectation shooting figures in recent seasons. He’s got 19 career 30-point games; only 23 players have more since the 1979-80 season. His 31 double-doubles rank 24th among non-centers during the same time span, and he has a triple-double as well. He’s made at least five 3-pointers 12 times, which means he’s done it more often than anyone not named Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Ray Allen, James Harden, Damian Lillard or Reggie Miller.  

It’s easy to forget because it happened several basketball lifetimes ago, but George was also a postseason monster early in his career, going toe-to-toe with in-his-prime LeBron James. At just 22 and 23 years old, George led the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances in 2013 and 2014, pushing James’s Miami Heat teams to seven and six games.4

Two Clippers players looking off-camera. One is hugging the other from behind.

related: The Clippers Have Been Here Before. Can They Battle Back Again? Read more. »

George was electric in that 2013 series, averaging 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a 50-47-81 shooting line … through the first six games. He slumped to just 2 of 9 shooting and fouled out of a blowout Game 7 loss. Still, George announced his presence with authority, and he earned James’s respect in the process.

In an on-court conversation after Game 7, James told George he was going to be “someone special in this league,” according to George. Of course, George proceeded to become exactly that — even after a horrific broken leg injury that sidelined him for nearly an entire season and led James to lament that he’d miss their playoff battles. It took three more years until George got to face James in the playoffs again,5 and when he did, George had perhaps his best series yet. He averaged 28 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game, only to see his team get swept in a series decided by a total of just 16 points. 

It was then that he requested a trade out of Indiana, and the Pacers obliged by sending him to Oklahoma City. George nicknamed himself “Playoff P” before his first Oklahoma City playoff series, declaring his alter ego a “fun guy to watch” while boasting that he would shut down then-rookie Donovan Mitchell. Naturally, Mitchell proceeded to average 28.5 points per game in a 4-2 Utah Jazz victory, while George shot just 40.8 percent from the field during the series and finished a horrendous 2 of 16 in the Game 6 clincher.

That series seems to have been when the jokes started about “Playoff P.” And it didn’t let up from there, largely because George continued to struggle. The next year, in the first round against Portland, George was the one defending Lillard when Dame hit a series-clinching dagger. (After the game, George famously called it a “bad shot.”)6 And in his first postseason with the Clippers, his shooting was so bad (39.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep) that basketball fans debuted all-new versions of his self-given nickname: Way-off P and Pandemic P.

Those may not exactly be appropriate monikers (for several reasons), but George was busy shooting 4 of 17, 3 of 16, 3 of 14 and 6 of 19 in games against the Mavericks, and then 4 of 16 in Game 7 against the Nuggets. Following that loss to Denver — which came after the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead — George contradicted himself by saying the Clippers did not view 2020 as “championship or bust,” even though he had said exactly the opposite a few months earlier.

Stuff like that is what’s opened George up to so much criticism over the years. Stuff like what he’s done since Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury is what often makes it seem silly.

George went for 65 points, 25 rebounds, 12 assists, four steals and three blocks as the Clippers took Games 5 and 6 to clinch their second-round series against the Jazz, without their best player. He shot 22 of 46 from the field, 5 of 14 from deep and 16 of 18 from the line. His jumper has been off-line against the Suns, but he’s still managed to average 27.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and a steal across the first four games of the series, while parading himself to the line for 10.8 attempts per game. All while Leonard is out (along with Serge Ibaka), Marcus Morris Sr. is hobbled and head coach Ty Lue has gone back to a bigger lineup that has clogged up all the driving lanes.

George has his work cut out for him as the Clippers attempt their own 3-1 comeback beginning Monday night. Given the playoff history of teams trailing 3-1 in a seven-game series, it’s likely they’ll come up short in their efforts. George may even have another one of his way-off shooting nights on the Clippers’ way out. Even if he does, though, that shouldn’t be a referendum on his career, or his merits as a star. He proved those long ago.

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Footnotes

  1. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

  2. The league average on possessions outside of garbage time during the playoffs is 98.7 points per 100, according to Cleaning the Glass.

  3. Since 1980 and limited to players with at least 3,000 career minutes.

  4. They also took Miami to six games in 2012, when George was 21 years old, but at that point he was still playing second fiddle to Danny Granger.

  5. James was back with the Cleveland Cavaliers by then.

  6. He ended up taking that back earlier this year.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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