How Paul George discovered the best version of himself in OKC

A FEW WEEKS into last season, Paul George had a polite request for Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan.

Stop running plays for me.

Donovan had studied hours of tape on George -- what side of the floor he likes to come off screens, where he likes to post, where he likes to run pick-and-rolls -- but quickly realized his new small forward thrived most within the rhythm and flow of organic basketball.

"At times he's like, 'Stop -- just let me get it,'" Donovan said. "I had to learn him. I can watch things on film and say, 'Oh, that's a good play and he made that shot, let's run that,' but there's a lot more to it than that." George's offensive mantra -- let the game dictate where the shots come from, but don't force it -- fits well alongside Russell Westbrook, who toes the line between control and chaos. When Westbrook missed games earlier this season, some expected the Thunder's second star to ramp up his aggressiveness to fill the void. But that has never been George's approach.

"I've always been a guy to just let the game come to me. Just play the game," George said. "If it's a shot for me, if I can make a play, create for someone else, I'll do that. A lot of times you run a play, everybody's watching, everybody's locked in, everybody's pulling over and it just makes the game tougher for me.

"I like it when I can kind of manipulate and be on attack mode where they don't know what to do, as opposed to a play other teams [can] scout."

There's no on/off switch waiting to be flipped with George; it has to come naturally. But once it's there, the surge can be overwhelming.

THE FIRST BUCKET came much like the final one, off a designed out-of-bounds play, set up by Westbrook, with a pump fake to let a defender fly by. George's wing 3-pointer cut the Nets' lead to 13 with seven minutes to go in a Dec. 5 game in Brooklyn. In the moment, it felt like nothing more than saving some face in what was sure to be an ugly road loss.

The next one came about 20 seconds later, after George corralled a defensive rebound, casually loped up the court and stepped right into another 3. Forty seconds later, another 3, this one coming after George curled around a Steven Adams screen and Westbrook hit him in stride.

With Westbrook pushing, George kept going. A run-out layup. A backdoor alley-oop from Westbrook with George slapping the backboard as the ball flushed through the net. A Euro-stepping reverse. An and-1 in traffic. A driving, physical finish through Nets big man Jarrett Allen. George's entire offensive arsenal was on display.

Just like that, it was a one-point game with 90 seconds to go.

There have been memes and jokes about George the past few years since his "no OT tonight" Gatorade ad came out. Coming into that Nets game, he was infamously 0-for-14 in his career on go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime. And with Westbrook known for clutch-time heroics, it was fair to wonder whether George might not get the final look, even while sitting on 22 points in the quarter.

The Thunder's playcall was simple: a dummy pick-and-pop between Westbrook and George, with Westbrook drawing two confused Nets his way and hitting George on time and on target.

George gave a subtle pump to let Spencer Dinwiddie fly by, composed himself and let fly on his first official game-winner. The tally: 25 points in the fourth -- really, in the final seven minutes -- the most ever by a Thunder player in a quarter. On the other side of it was Westbrook, scoreless in the fourth with only two shot attempts and five assists, four of them setting up George. Westbrook didn't just defer; he actively worked to keep George going.

"I wanted to try to get two guys on me, because I was gonna drive it," Westbrook said of the final shot against the Nets. "Exactly what I thought they were gonna do they did, and it freed up the guy that had 25 points in the fourth quarter. Easy decision for me."

None of that happens without Westbrook's immense trust in George as a co-star. It's a two-way street that has been built from a season of ups and downs together but also a firm recognition of needing the other. Both have spent time in their careers with 10 defensive eyes on them in crunch time as a solo closer. Diversification distracts, and George and Westbrook have used each other's gravity to make the game easier for the other in critical moments.

George put a lot of pressure on himself to hit those shots in Indy, though he shrugs off the crunch-time failures as simply a matter of the ball going in or not. But it helps having a secondary star to shoulder the stress.

"We don't really put much pressure on it [now]," George said of OKC's fourth-quarter execution. "It's the same shot from the first quarter to the last quarter, it just comes down to if we make it or not."

After George's game-winner against the Nets, a shot many were stunned Westbrook didn't take -- probably including the Nets, considering how they defended the play -- no one was happier than Westbrook. He interrupted George's postgame interview to dump multiple bottles of cold water on his teammate, celebrating the way anyone would who was excited for his friend.

"He's just being himself," Westbrook said. "He's aggressive when he plays his pace. He can get any shot he wants, can score with anybody in the league. As you can see, he's been good all season."

Normally operating under a "if you want it done right, do it yourself" principle, Westbrook has worked this season to refresh his playing style: getting off the ball more, searching for more efficient shots and often deferring to his All-Star teammate. He did it for Kevin Durant, and now he's doing it for George.

"Russ is probably the most comfortable guy in those positions -- late-game positions," George said. "He's going to make the right play. And we trust him."

THERE MAY BE no greater endorsement than Russell Westbrook trusting you as much as he trusts himself.

Westbrook, armed with an unwavering belief in himself to come through in every spot, spent the past couple of seasons as the Thunder's primary late-game option. Everything ran through him, and it was at his discretion who got a shot -- if it was even anyone but him.

Westbrook and George played much of last season walking on eggshells, trying to find the right mix of playmaking between them, but they've spent the past year developing a strong bond. It's all paying off now for George, who is putting up the best numbers of his career in both counting stats -- he's averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals -- and analytics alike.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed right now to find guys that are playing at a higher level than he's playing," Donovan said.

George is third in the league in ESPN's real plus-minus, and second in RPM wins. Pick a stat and it's probably going to tell you George is at the top of his game.

"I do, I do," George said when asked if he thinks this is the best he has ever played. "I think just the experience and not having to shoulder everything offensively, it's definitely helped as well.

"But I do feel I've grown, and just been seasoned, just knowing how to attack, how to play off certain defenses. And just a different mentality."

Much has been made of Westbrook's crunch-time heroics -- and failures -- but he's no stranger to splitting responsibilities when every point matters late in games. In their final season together in OKC, Westbrook took 35 percent of the Thunder's total clutch-time shots, while Durant took 31 percent. This season, Westbrook is taking 32 percent of the Thunder's shots during crunch time, while George is taking 22 percent. That's a marked difference from last season, when Westbrook took 45 percent to George's 16 percent.

And with the bump in late-game usage, George has turned into a final-frame monster for the Thunder this season.

There has been a renewed tone all the way around, too. Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night, the Thunder were again in a spot where execution mattered. They had the ball down two with 10 seconds left and dialed up a play similar to the one that freed George for the game-winner in Brooklyn.

Knowing it wasn't a guarantee Westbrook would keep the ball, the Pelicans stayed with George. Westbrook drove and, with Anthony Davis waiting for an unstoppable-force-immovable-object collision at the rim, kicked it to ... Alex Abrines. Abrines, an excellent though often inconsistent shooter, was open but missed. Neither George nor Westbrook, however, second-guessed the decision after the game.

"I think for myself, for Russ, we know we can't do it alone," George said. "We know we need these guys, and that's the only way we're gonna get to where we want to get to is if everybody is on the same page."

THE BUZZWORD AROUND George this season has been "comfortable." Ask anyone around the team what the difference has been, and they note his increased comfort level and a stronger leadership role.

A year ago, he was feeling his way around, learning teammates, learning coaches, learning trainers and medical staffs -- and learning about himself. George had stepped onto Westbrook's team, playing with a reigning MVP who had just become the first NBA player to average a triple-double in almost 60 years. (Westbrook repeated the feat last season and is doing so again so far this season.)

Now, George has settled in. And after re-signing long term with the Thunder over the summer, the stability and assurance has given him a boost. He's secure in his place -- not only physically but mentally.

"I have a goal to be the best player every time I touch that floor. Just be the best me."
Thunder forward Paul George

"I know who I am. [Perception] doesn't make me who I am," George said. "I just try to step on that floor and try to play as hard as I can. I have a goal to be the best player every time I touch that floor. Just be the best me."

It's noteworthy that the best version of George has emerged in OKC. There is still some shock and curiosity around the league about George picking the Thunder and Westbrook over the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James. But the fact is, George's star, ironically, may have a chance to shine brightest in OKC, which offered the appeal of a more equal footing with Westbrook, rather than playing as a bit piece to LeBron's constantly evolving legacy.

The season is more than a quarter done, which is about the time MVP contenders start having their box scores and highlights tracked more intently. The proverbial is-he-in-the-conversation discussions are beginning to churn, and George is nudging his name somewhere on that list right now. He has often been left out of conversations that include LeBron, Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but George is a complete player who has always been regarded as one of the top two-way players in the league.

The Thunder have bounced around the top of the Western Conference, propped up by the league's best defense -- led by George, who is also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate -- and are there despite Westbrook missing eight games.

"I think everybody, whether they have team goals or individual goals, I think everybody would like to be the MVP of the league," George said. "But that's not what my focus is. My job is just to give everything that I have, play as hard as I can, and just try to win as much as possible.

"If that makes me the MVP, then so be it."