On paper, it certainly seems as though the Los Angeles Clippers have all the tools necessary to build a sturdy bridge to the NBA Finals. Of course, it sure seemed that way last year and Steve Ballmer's pet project was bounced prematurely from the playoffs in one of the more humiliating ways we've seen this century. They are out for revenge and out to right old wrongs this season. To this point, they have been cruising along at a respectable clip, entering last night's game against Brooklyn tied with the Lakers for the West's second seed.
But a nationally televised loss to the Nets highlighted the myriad ways in which this team has demons to master and DNA to alter. And yes, that may sound a bit hyperbolic, especially after beating the seemingly unbeatable Utah Jazz on Friday night. If so, remember that old habits are hard to break and a leopard can't change its spots no matter how loud it complains.
A common problem in premature playoff departures has been Paul George, in Indianapolis and Oklahoma City, and now in L.A. There are certain players who simply never figure it out and put things in working order in the highest-leverage situations. That doesn't change his ability or his undeniable talent.
So through that lens, the full George experience was on display Sunday night. He exploded for 34 points in 33 minutes, remaining in the game despite a playing-time restriction, as the Clippers cut a 15-point deficit to a six-point hole with 2:50 to play. Then he was pulled and forced to watch from the bench, despite, in his words, being able to compete.
This, obviously, is not his fault. The organization is showing an abundance of caution after George missed seven games with a swollen toe. There is no need to weep over a regular-season game when there are postseason worlds to conquer down the road.
Still, it feels emblematic that George was forced to watch from the sidelines, a non-factor as Kawhi Leonard and James Harden took the game on their collective shoulders. It felt emblematic that George wasn't involved in the most meaningful moment: an offensive foul on Leonard that wiped away a potential game-tying bucket and secured victory for the Nets.
Analysts can decry the call in real-time and pundits can spend all day talking about how Harden flopped, but they're only screaming into microphones for attention. Leonard clearly pushed off and, by any accepted definition of an offensive foul, committed an offensive foul. People who want officials to swallow their whistles in the final minute only want them to do so when integrity-less product helps their team or bolsters their entertainment. Officials are not tasked with creating the most thrilling product; they are tasked with creating the most equitable product.
There was great consternation over the whistle postgame throughout the Clips' camp.
After this latest tightly contested loss to the Nets, George was asked how difficult it is to compete against players who sell contact on both ends of the floor to officials. "It's really hard, it's really hard," George said. "I mean, I haven't really got into the flopping game, but in today's game, it's smart, you know what I mean? "It's smart. They control the refs. They got the refs in their pocket, so kudos to the guys who are great at that part of the game."
And there's the perfect, if slightly unfair, encapsulation of George. For whatever reason, resigned to be a non-factor in the ultimate outcome but confident enough to chirp about the outcome. Able to see what the real difference-makers do yet not ready to make the difference himself.
Eventually, he will have to become that No. 1a option Leonard can rely on in the clutch. Eventually, the Clippers are going to have to put last year's implosion behind them. Fair or otherwise, they can't really do that in the court of public opinion until they gut out a playoff series against a team of equal or greater talent.
It is so hard to imagine them doing that. That's what a decade-plus of George has done. Create a reputation with callouses, so much so that when he does something spectacular, it doesn't register. Or when he's unavailable despite his wishes, it bleeds together with all the other times he's come up small down the stretch.
For Los Angeles to achieve its lofty goals, George must become the story instead of reacting to the story. He must be the one delivering greatness instead of standing adjacent to it. He must force the direction of conversation instead of being steamrolled by it.
All that could happen. George could emerge as the most ruthless postseason killer in the NBA this postseason. There's just no evidence to suggest he will. Even when he plays well there's a nagging reminder that he's Paul George, coming with all that entails.
Flashes of intense brilliance abound. But still uncomfortable or, worse, non-existent under the most intense lights.