IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to know what Paul George was thinking the moment the ball left his hand, but it would be understandable if he was holding his breath.
Considering his very public shooting slump to that point in the LA Clippers' opening-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, George's first shot -- a smooth, perfectly arching 17-foot jumper at the top of the key on LA's first possession of Game 5 -- might have been worth more than the two points it scored.
The shooting woes George endured in the first four games of the series -- particularly Games 2 through 4 -- were a bizarre, unsettling mixture of bad luck and bad shot selection. The pressure of the postseason brings a weight to every possession and every failure. Piling up bricks can amplify everything.
As George's feet hit the floor, the ball was making its way through the net and he was confidently already fading back toward the defensive end. It was the basketball body language version of "Yep, that's good." George called out his assignment and scrambled to pick up his man. He was locked in.
The 48 hours leading up to that first shot were difficult, and in George's words, dark. Stuck within the NBA's bubble on the campus of Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, George had to find his own way out with his support system thousands of miles away.
"I underestimated mental health, honestly," George said after Game 5. "I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Just being locked in here. I just wasn't there. I checked out."
Whether it was the good game that brought him back or the mental reset leading to the good game, George played with the kind of overwhelming skill that helped drown the Mavs 154-111.
George scored 35 points in 25 minutes, more than he scored in the 115 minutes of the previous three games combined. In Game 5, he was 7-of-12 on contested shots. In Games 2-4, he was 5-of-33.
In Game 6, as the Clippers advanced, George started hot and then cooled, finishing with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. He did other things, like play quality defense, rebound and pass, but the touch left him and it was Kawhi Leonard who drove LA to the second round.
Historically, George has been streaky in the playoffs with the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder, playing dominant, overwhelming two-way basketball in one game to follow it with a shooting dud the next.
"I think people get so caught up with what other people think. I'm Paul George. I don't care to be anybody else."Paul George
George joined Leonard in Los Angeles to provide some insulation from that fine margin of error. George was the franchise in Indy, shouldering the blame but always among the plucky small-market overachievers raging against the dying light of a Miami Heat superteam. He stepped into a brighter light in OKC on a perceived superteam of his own, but it was under the protection of Russell Westbrook's perpetual examination.
In Los Angeles, George is the co-star on one of the most well-lit NBA stages there is, supposedly on equal star footing as Leonard. But Leonard is certified by championships, a two-time Finals MVP and immune from appraisal. There is no escaping it for George.
Within the superduo in L.A., George isn't some complementary piece. If the Clippers are going to win a championship, they need Playoff P, and not just some of the time.
THE NICKNAME WAS first uttered in a small room with about 15 reporters huddled around George. It was something of an off-handed comment the day before the Thunder opened the 2018 postseason against the Utah Jazz.
George was asked about shifting his responsibilities to guarding then-rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell. He tilted his head, grinned and in his smooth baritone delivered a quip that has followed him since.
"Y'all ain't met Playoff P yet, huh?"
The context around the moniker has gotten lost over time -- George was primarily referring to taking on the assignment of guarding the other team's best scorer -- but George might be as much to blame for that as anyone else.
Asked what Playoff P looks like, he said, "It's a fun guy to watch. It's an out-of-body person where I just lock in and put myself in a different zone."
Playoff P was properly introduced in Game 1 of that series. George dropped 36 points on the Jazz, hitting 13-of-20 from the floor and 8-of-11 from 3 as the Thunder cruised to a win. The headlines wrote themselves.
George began to lean into his new persona, even sporting custom slides with "Play" on the right foot and "Off P" on the left.
"I thought that you guys gave him that name," then-Thunder teammate Carmelo Anthony said the morning after Game 1. "I found out this morning he named himself that. So ..."
With an expectation now set, Game 2 didn't go as well for Playoff P. He finished with 18 points but on 6-of-21 shooting, including an 0-of-5 showing in the fourth quarter in which the Thunder were outscored 28-16 in defeat. He was asked after the game if the Playoff P hype added any stress.
"Stressed? Tonight? Nah, nah," George said. "There's no stress. It's not like it's a name I'm trying to live up to.
"Whether it's a win or loss, Playoff P is out there regardless. There's no stress with that. No pressure with that."
Sitting at the podium next to him, as George answered, Anthony chuckled and muttered quietly:
"Can't take it back now."
GEORGE HAS LONG craved the spotlight. He didn't play his first Christmas Day game until his first season in Oklahoma City, a frustration he wasn't shy about.
George's Pacers teams didn't pull a lot of national attention, but he was the franchise player and local hero, leading the small-market overachievers to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014 against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. But before this season, George hadn't been out of the first round since.
George had the autonomy as the Pacers' franchise player and primary scorer, a perpetual green light and right to demand the ball. When the Pacers lost Game 1 to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 as teammate CJ Miles took the last shot, George was blunt:
"In situations like that, I gotta get the last shot," he said. "I was asking for it. CJ took it upon himself."
When he joined Westbrook, the Thunder were a national TV staple. With it came attention, though he had to share it.
Westbrook has always been a lightning rod for conversation, his gravity tilting everything in his direction. And that's not always bad for a co-star, especially when it comes to the blame.
In 2018, when the Thunder were ousted by the Jazz in Game 6 -- the same series in which Playoff P was born -- George scored five points on 2-of-16 shooting in the elimination game. Westbrook, though, scored 43 -- on 43 shots -- and was the one who garnered the postgame criticism.
Westbrook and George built a clear partnership and shared responsibilities with no defined role of alpha and beta. If anything, Westbrook made it a point to lift George on offense, looking for him late in games and pushing him to cook when he had it going.
George famously had never hit a game winner before his OKC days -- a target of easy social media burns -- before splashing one against the Brooklyn Nets last season. He went on to hit two more.
It was an adjustment playing next to Westbrook, but the chemistry came, especially after Anthony was traded and the Thunder recalibrated behind a double-superstar attack. George said his biggest challenge "was just trying to figure out how to be me," but he found it.
There have been flashes with the Clippers -- like his first two games, in which he dropped 33 in 24 minutes and followed it with 37 in 20 minutes two nights later. But this is Year 1 and it's been a choppy one at that. With injuries, minute restrictions, chemistry concerns and a global pandemic halting the season, George is still figuring out how he best fits beside Leonard.
"When LeBron went to D-Wade, of course LeBron was the tier-A guy, but Wade was never in the background. He was still producing at his level," a Western Conference scout said. "When you're that alpha guy, it's just a different mentality. Sometimes if you feel like you're in a loaded situation, that hunger kind of drops."
The fit with Leonard in L.A. had some minor questions: They are rangy two-way wings who play the same position, but it's nothing too concerning that raw talent couldn't overcome.
Personally, the pairing had a mutual admiration from the jump, stemming from their similar biographical arcs: Both were low-lottery or mid-first-round draft picks from Southern California who went to mid-major schools before blossoming into NBA stars. George was used to the emotions-on-your-sleeve way of Westbrook, but Leonard possesses more of an internal intensity.
The duo couldn't exactly hit the ground running. With George's rehab from offseason surgeries on both shoulders, they didn't work out together last summer. They weren't on the court together in 5-on-5 scenarios until George was cleared in November and played only 37 games together during the regular season.
"[Leonard] does dominate the ball a lot," another Western Conference scout said. "It's tough to get used to playing with Kawhi, no doubt. Don't get me wrong, Kawhi can score, but I just think it's hard to play with him sometimes."
IT WAS MARCH 27, 2018 -- still cold in Oklahoma City -- and George was explaining why he was stuck in a bit of a shooting slump. He was under 40% from the field for the month and in his past two games had hit only 7 of 31 shots, including 0-of-13 from 3. "I think a lot of that has to do with weather," he said, as a group of reporters started to let out a chuckle, thinking George was joking. He wasn't.
"Weather feels good, body is naturally warm. Playoff time is always around when we're getting into that good weather. Sun's out, I think that's really where it stems from."
What George was mired in to start the 2020 postseason was a different kind of slump, one even the scorching temperatures of August in Florida couldn't fix. It reached the level where stats researchers started digging into the history books for context.
George was the first player to shoot under 25% in three straight playoff games since 1960 (Bob Cousy).
George was 20-of-69 the first four games of the series, the worst postseason shooting percentage of his career.
George was on pace to have the third-worst shooting percentage on at least 15 attempts per game since the NBA/ABA merger.
George summed it up after Game 4: "To be honest, in hindsight, if I shoot the ball better, this series would be a lot different."
Playoff P became a punchline.
Stephen A. Smith wants to see a better performance from Paul George on both offense and defense.
"Pandemic P" was trending on social media at one point following Game 3. It was even listed as one of his nicknames on Basketball Reference for a short time. TNT's Charles Barkley, who never won a ring, labeled himself "Championship Chuck" to play off George's nickname. The memes, the roasts, the jokes -- George was feeling it all.
So much that he posted about it on Instagram, making sure everyone knows he doesn't care what they think, after an underwhelming Game 3.
"I think people get so caught up with what other people think," George explained the day after a loss. "I'm Paul George. I don't care to be anybody else. ... I am who I am. You either love it or you don't. Simple as that."
George's teammates could sense his frustration. He's not one to vent on social media, to chirp back and forth with fans or pay much attention to the criticism. George is calm and controlled.
Clippers forward JaMychal Green encouraged George to put the phone down and get off social media. Block the noise out, focus on the next game. Visualize that first shot hitting all net.
But George doesn't go into games thinking about his first bucket or getting clean looks.
Rather, there is an order of operations to his game: He thinks about that first steal or first deflection, or the first screen he's going to blow up by slithering around it. To George, defense unlocks everything else.
It's what he was driving at when he said "I'm no James Harden" after Game 3 against the Mavericks. It might have sounded like an unnecessary jab at a former MVP, but it's the core value to George's game.
"I pride myself on being effective on both ends," George said. "But there's going to be nights like this where I just can't make a shot, and I can't allow that to affect my game."
The numbers suggested it was. When George was the primary defender in Games 2, 3 and 4, the Mavs were 13-of-33 shooting (39%) and scored 36 points on him. They were 4-of-10 from 3 on him; he went 4-of-25 against them.
"You just have those times where you're just struggling. You try too hard to make something happen," a Western Conference scout said before Game 5. "He needs to just focus on his defense and really don't worry about the offense."
George is naturally unselfish. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said George never once asked for the ball, and at one point in their first season together, George told Donovan to stop running plays for him.
George is no stranger to big games. He stood eye-to-eye with LeBron and the Heat. He felt the burden of being on a perceived superteam with Westbrook and Anthony, and the frustrations that came with not living up to expectations.
But the Clippers are a different team, one with championship-or-bust aspirations and a made man in Leonard who won't deflect criticism from George. Playoff P is dealing with Pressure P.
"I mean it's Paul George," teammate Landry Shamet said. "He's got his own shoe, he's been on the cover of a video game; it's not the first time he's been publicly scrutinized. I don't think it is anything new to him. There is obviously a lot of pressure on this team."
The temperature rises round by round, and Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets will bring a new set of challenges for the Clippers. A championship run inevitably will include drama, discussion and adversity, and after Luka Doncic's Game 4 stepback, the stress shifted to George and the Clippers in a way they hadn't experienced.
They were being pushed, and a response was demanded. That's when Playoff P reintroduced himself. To reach the Finals, George will have to earn his nickname every step of the way.