Playoff P breaks out of slump in an eventful Sunday

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two days ago, Paul George started an answer to a question about the responsibility of guarding Donovan Mitchell while maintaining his offensive aggressiveness and stopped himself.

“Y’all ain’t met Playoff P yet, huh?” George said with a smile.

George, who has made a name for himself with sparkling playoff performances, had set himself up. With the memes probably chambered and ready, George was either going to live up to it or feel the wrath.

With 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting, including 8-of-11 on 3-pointers (an OKC franchise record in the playoffs) as the Oklahoma City Thunder took Game 1 against the Utah Jazz 116-108, Playoff P showed up.

“I’m going to bring it to that level on a nightly basis,” George said. “Obviously, I was hot tonight, but that’s the level I am going to bring it to every night.”

Asked how big the hoop looked for him, still on his game, George replied regarding an Instagram post: “About as big as that fish I posted.”

The Thunder’s season can somewhat be defined by the peaks and valleys George has hit throughout the season. The manifestation of the team took shape around Russell Westbrook sometime in mid-December with George slotting in as the nightly No. 2 and Carmelo Anthony as a clear No. 3 (and sometimes No. 4) in the hierarchy. The Thunder were good enough to win often on off nights from their stars, developing a bit of a formula: When two play well, they start looking really good.

And in a matchup against the Jazz, a team centered on a rookie, the Thunder entered with the two best players in the series. That’s normally a pretty good indication of who should win, but with inconsistency being the buzzword that has followed the Thunder all season, nothing was clear. There was always this idea that they were built for the postseason, with top-shelf talent ready to shine when the games mattered most, but the Thunder never established anything steady. They entered the playoffs a wild card — dangerous but unknown.

But George’s ability to elevate himself is what keeps the Thunder scary. There is no playoff version of Russell Westbrook — there’s just Russell Westbrook — but he can rise and fall in terms of efficiency and decision-making. Anthony is a threat to hit batches of 3s and could be a reliable crunch-time option in isolation when possessions stall out, but he has accepted and embraced a role playing off of his co-stars.

It’s George, though, who possesses game-dominating qualities, like those he flashed in Game 1. It was on both ends, with George suffocating Joe Ingles and disrupting the churning Utah offense while eviscerating any defender put in front of him. He had his devastating side-to-side crossover going, clearing airspace to launch from deep, yelling out, “Can’t hold me!” after one particularly ruthless step-back 3 in the second half.

George is known for his shooting streaks, and slumps, but over a longer-than-usual stretch of off nights in late March and early April, he openly questioned his mechanics and said his shot felt “funny” following a 5-of-19 shooting performance against the Golden State Warriors on April 3. A few nights later, the night before the Thunder took on the Houston Rockets in Texas, George spent more than an hour by himself shooting in the Toyota Center’s practice gym trying to work it out.

George shot it a little better against the Rockets, then a little better against the Miami Heat two nights later, and then shredded the Grizzlies for 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting on the final night of the regular season.

In the locker room postgame, with George in the back receiving treatment for a hip contusion, Anthony was ready first but asked Westbrook if he wanted him to wait until Westbrook was dressed so they could go to the interview room together. Westbrook told Anthony yes and hurried up putting on his outfit, assisted by the fact he wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath his designer gray suit. A few questions in, they were asked about “Playoff P.”

“That’s his name? That’s his new name? I’m gonna let Russ answer that one. Playoff P,” Anthony said, looking at Westbrook who shrugged in an “I don’t know, man” way.

Westbrook talked about how “P” being aggressive changes the game for the Thunder, and how his staying that way makes them a better team. This is what the Thunder envisioned when they traded for George last summer, giving up Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. A true running mate for Westbrook, someone who could dominate a playoff game and turn the reigning MVP into a secondary option.

“We knew all along that we got multiple guys that can make plays, create and be explosive offensively,” George said. “We’re not going to put that pressure on just one guy. Obviously, my job is to help Russ, and with that, it’s helping the team. It’s my job to bring it and to bring it at a high level.”

The focus from the Thunder after the game, specifically coach Billy Donovan, was that there’s a lot to clean up for Game 2. He mentioned multiple times they have to be better in Game 2. There was a sense that George’s hot shooting carried them in possibly a fool’s gold kind of way — that the shots went in this time, and if they don’t next time, then things might go the other way. But then again, maybe he’s just now getting introduced to Playoff P himself.

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Playoff P breaks out of slump in an eventful Sunday
Playoff P breaks out of slump in an eventful Sunday