Paul George is still 'a work in progress'

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Late Monday afternoon, under a sprawling pastel blue sky, Paul George stood on a fishing dock at South Lakes Park in southwest Oklahoma City.

He was there to cut the ribbon on a kid-friendly dock, designed to look like a basketball floor with his PG logo on it that he and the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation came together to build.

The dock was something he planned while playing with the Thunder, before any notion of teaming with Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles. It's one of the reasons that when the starting lineups were announced Tuesday night in OKC, George, now a member of the LA Clippers, was given a strong ovation.

"I had a short stint here, but the way they embraced me, took me in from day one the second I stepped foot here, it was a huge impact," George said. "That's the reason I still want to do community work here. I still want to be established as a Sooner here, as an Oklahoman."

But they also cheer because George played some of the most electric basketball Oklahoma City Thunder fans ever saw.

It was just about a year ago that George was elevating himself into a candidate for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. He was a volume marksman, routinely hitting seven and eight 3s a game on 38.6% shooting from distance.

He played through issues to both shoulders, requiring surgery in the offseason. He missed the first 11 games of the season, debuting in New Orleans with 33 effortless points in 24 minutes. The next month and a half was about finding chemistry with his new team and getting into the kind of shape his 94-foot two-way game requires.

A hamstring injury in early January sidelined him again. Then it flared up again a few weeks ago.

"I'm a work in progress," George said after the Clippers' dominant 109-94 win over the Thunder. "It's been a tough year being injured. Being in the rotation, being out of the rotation. And then just playing in a whole new system, new players, new teammates, new coaches, new playing style. So it's been a bit of an adjustment for me."

Back on the Thunder floor, where by his own declaration he played the best basketball of his career, George was in a groove early. When George finds his rhythm, his handle is silky; he's aggressive from 3; his step-back is a bit tighter; his downhill drives are more forceful and frequent. He flourishes when in rhythm, and it's something he's searching for to begin every game. He has always said the best way to unlock it is to focus on the other end first.

"That's always going to be how I get myself going," George said. "Getting stops, playing defense, getting going, get my legs moving. I took the assignment to go at the head of the snake, [Chris Paul]. It's fun making those challenges."

George fits in any lineup, in any system, in any situation. His game is adaptable, because he searches out ways he can make an impact. The Clippers' season has been full of choppy rotations, with their death star lineup fully operational again for only the last week, but they flexed their raw end-to-end power against the Thunder.

"Our whole thing is just getting ready and being ready for the playoffs," coach Doc Rivers said. "And for [George], he's just missed so much. You can see him picking up for sure. I think he still has conditioning to do, which is so late in the season to be saying that, but with his injuries and the type of injuries he's had, he's not been able to run. So [in the] last four or five games, you can see it. You can see us coming. Him in general, when he plays well, we're pretty good."

Not counting the 2014-15 season when he returned from injury to play only six games, George is averaging his fewest points per game in six seasons. Adapting to playing alongside Leonard, Lou Williams and the Clippers' depth was understood coming in, but he hasn't had much opportunity to hit the gas either.

"He's been doubled, he's been on minute restrictions, he's getting back healthy," Leonard said. "It just depends what team plays us. You'll see the Paul George you always see, or you're going to see somebody making plays, doing his job. I'm happy with his play."

Whether the rotation shrinks, or just minutes expand, George is a key cog to unlocking LA's potential and pushing for a title. Leonard can carry a team. The Clippers' depth can win games. But George at his elite two-way level checks more boxes than almost any team in the league can handle.

"I don't know," Leonard said when asked how close the team is to reaching its potential. "Because I don't know what our potential is. You never know how good a team can be. But we're going to strive to be the best team we can. We're not complacent. We want to keep getting better and hopefully reach the goal."

George played 27 minutes against the Thunder, but the real workout was still to come. He hit another workout postgame, falling into his chair in front of his locker drenched in sweat and letting out a loud curse word as he pulled off his gear. So in the meantime, George will work toward becoming the MVP-caliber player he was last year, and then the Clippers will find out what they're really capable of.

"I think every situation I just try to get lost into the team," George said. "Just give myself up. Allow to be coached, allow to be a teammate, a brother. I just lose myself in the team. Usually great results come from that."