For Clippers’ Paul George, the ‘focus on moving forward’ means being healthy and playing

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PORTLAND, Ore. — In the opening minutes of Friday night’s game, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a zone defense, and LA Clippers point guard James Harden had the ball more than 30 feet from the basket. Clippers All-Star small forward Paul George was on the right wing, watching as Harden called center Ivica Zubac up for a ball screen.

For most of this season, Harden has navigated the defense to make plays. George, who set the franchise’s all-time single-season record for 3s made in a season, has had a standout season off the ball. But Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue declared last week that, with less than a month left in the regular season, it was time to pick up George’s on-ball reps. Lue said that while Harden was out with a shoulder injury. But when Lue was asked how the intention for George to increase his on-ball production changes things for Harden, Lue said it doesn’t.

“It’s just taking away some of Paul’s catch-and-shoots, and just more pick-and-rolls,” Lue said before the Clippers practiced in LA before leaving for Portland. “So they all have to be able to share the responsibility of making plays for their teammates and for each other. It’s just not going to be just James the whole time.”

That idea was put to work. Harden didn’t use Zubac’s screen and swung the ball over to George. Zubac flipped the angle of the screen to take out George’s defender, rookie Toumani Camara, and George went to work. With fellow All-Star Kawhi Leonard occupying the near-side corner, George aggressively attacked the Portland zone defense, knowing that Anfernee Simons would be hesitant to offer much help off of Leonard. Once George got into the paint, he drew contact from rookie center Duop Reath and kept going to the rim, scoring through Reath’s foul.

It was the second consecutive first quarter that George got an and-1 in Portland. On Wednesday, it was George coming down the floor and being met by rookie Scoot Henderson. Zubac could have set the screen, but George had this under control, so Zubac headed inside and let George work the isolation. With Henderson trapped on George’s back, George rose in the midrange and scored through a foul.

The strong early starts by George in Portland were launching pads to solid games overall. On Wednesday, George scored 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a 116-103 Clippers win. Friday was even better: 31 points on 10-of-14 shooting in a 125-117 Clippers win, his first 30-point game since Feb. 10. It’s the first time that George made more than half of his shots in back-to-back games since Jan. 12. And George has now scored at least 20 points in nine straight games, his longest streak since scoring at least 20 points in 13 straight games from Dec. 16 to Jan. 12.

“My body’s just been feeling great, which is allowing me to be aggressive and take the bumps and live in the paint,” said George on Friday night. “So a lot of that has to do with just, you know, this time of the year. Feeling good, body starting to come together, and just conditioning. So that part feels good, but that’s just the emphasis period. Trying to find success in the paint, getting easy ones at the basket. And that point, jump shots start falling.”

Not bad for a player who seemed to question the team’s lack of identity following a brutal home loss to the Atlanta Hawks before the Portland trip. And certainly not bad for a player who is approaching a contractual crossroads in his career with the Clippers.

Lue has lamented how the Clippers have yet to finish a season with Leonard and George healthy since Lue took over for Doc Rivers in 2020. And of course, the 2020 season was disrupted around this point of the campaign.

This year, Lue is trying to reach George, who has often had to have his star role adjusted to fit the team. George suggested the Clippers did not have an identity after Sunday’s loss to the Hawks, which Lue responded to before Wednesday’s game by saying, “Ask him today, see what he says.”

Whatever change in George’s demeanor existed before the Portland miniseries, the trip seemed to help. The entire team was in a better mood after Wednesday’s game, highlighted by Harden’s ridiculous stunt in the third quarter where he closed out on Leonard’s corner 3-point attempt, a possession that ended with an Amir Coffey 3 assisted by Harden.

“At the end of the day, it’s a game, it’s sport,” George said Wednesday night in Portland. “Have fun with it. But we know what the main goal is.”

After Friday’s game, George made it clear he has no problem with Lue’s coaching and feedback for him, which is notable coming from a player who was unhappy at times with Doc Rivers’ offense from the 2019-20 season. Lue has pushed many buttons with George as the All-Star’s role has changed annually, from asking George to be the team’s primary playmaker in 2020-21 to having to carry the offense in 2021-22 before damaging his elbow in December of that season, to moving out of the primary playmaker role last season while asking the Clippers to sign point guard Russell Westbrook.

“I mean, the relationship is great to begin with,” George said of his connection with Lue. “I love to be coached. Treat me like I’m the 10th man on the roster. That’s kind of how I appreciate taking to coaching. But the conversations we have, the chemistry we have, he knows how to get me going.

“And we have dialogue constantly of, ‘Hey, I need this,’ or ‘This is what I’m seeing,’ or ‘Let’s get a little bit more of that.’ And so it’s just, you know, answering the call, whatever the call may be. But it’s easy dialogue talking to T. Lue about what it is he wants from me.”

George can be a free agent this summer, as he holds a player option for next season. It’s the first time since re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018 that George has been in this position. Lue isn’t in the exact situation, as he is under contract for the last year of a five-year deal signed in 2020, but he will likely get a new contract this offseason. Whether that is with the Clippers will likely depend on the team’s postseason result.

Leonard signed his somewhat team-friendly contract extension in January, stating that he expects George and Harden to be able to re-sign. Harden isn’t extension eligible and is on an expiring deal. George is extension eligible, but the realities of the new collective bargaining agreement have made George’s contract situation drag on throughout the season.

But whatever tension there may be regarding George’s role, or his future, or his performance, Lue and those invested in the Clippers can appreciate that George is simply playing. It was this week last season that Oklahoma City’s Luguentz Dort crashed into George’s right knee, ultimately ending George’s season.

“I don’t think about that,” George told The Athletic of his playing status this year compared to last year’s sprained knee. “That s— was last year. Injuries is injuries.”

The season before that, George severely injured his elbow in a Dec. 2021 game at Portland and missed enough games that it put the Clippers in the Play-In Tournament. Then George missed the elimination game against the Pelicans because of COVID-19.

The lost time for George complicates his situation. If the Clippers are maxed out and the playoffs show that, then George is between the rock and hard place of leaving on his own to an interested suitor, or taking less money to stay with a Clippers team that could move him anyway.

But George can’t worry about that. And if he is, sometimes a reminder is needed that his current team goal is more attainable now than it has been since Leonard tore his ACL in the 2021 playoffs.

“We’re on lockdown,” George told The Athletic. “Like I said, we just stay healthy, to your point, all that s— is in the past. And I mean … just focus on moving forward.”

(Photo of Paul George: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)


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