Los Angeles Clippers

LA Clippers star Paul George is in line for a statement season

Paul George admitted during the 2021 NBA Playoffs that he hears the resounding criticism that surrounds his name on social media.

"I do. And it's the honest truth. It's a fact. But I can't worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess," he said when asked if he feels like he's picked on more than other stars.

It all began with his four straight first-round playoff exits from 2015 to 2019, two as a member of the Indiana Pacers and two as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But people seem to forget what happened before those first-round exits.

At 22 and 23 years old, George burst onto the scene and solidified himself as one of the best young stars in the NBA. In the 2013 NBA Playoffs, at 22, George carried the Pacers to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2004. Matched up against league MVP LeBron James in his prime - not to mention a loaded Miami Heat roster - George and Indiana nearly denied the Big 3 an opportunity to pursue their first NBA title together, taking the series to seven games.

George averaged 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game in the Conference Finals, but he had a tough showing in a blowout Game 7 loss.

Nonetheless, George and the Pacers were back for more in 2014, reaching the Conference Finals in consecutive seasons for the first time since the Reggie Miller days in the late 1990s. Facing off against James and the Heat's Big 3 yet again, George did all he could to try and get Indiana over the hump. He posted 24.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists in the series, but the Pacers lost in five games to a much more talented team.

Even after falling just short of the Finals twice, one thing was clear: George was a bonafide star and had the talent to be the guy on a championship-calibre team.

Eight long years later, the LA Clippers will need a 31-year-old George to be exactly that if they're going to remain in contention for a title.

Superstar forward Kawhi Leonard suffered a season-ending partial ACL tear during the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals, later receiving surgery in July. He is out indefinitely, and the expectation is that the two-time Finals MVP will miss the majority - if not all - of the season.

That means George is in line for a statement season, out to prove he still has what it takes to be the No. 1 option on a contender.

Remember, it was just two seasons ago where the seven-time All-Star had the best year of his career, finishing in the top three for both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year as a member of the Thunder. It seems as though that feat has fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by Damian Lillard's series-clinching buzzer-beater to eliminate George and OKC during the 2019 NBA Playoffs, followed by a blown 3-1 lead in the Conference Semifinals in his first year with the Clippers in 2020.

But with all of that in the past, George put his best foot forward in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, displaying a version of himself that would put LA in a strong spot to remain competitive during the upcoming season if he can maintain that level of play.

Even before Leonard's injury, George was enjoying a monster postseason. Once Leonard went down with the Conference Semifinals series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz tied at two games apiece, many counted out the Clippers, but George kept the train rolling.

Paul George's splits before and after Kawhi Leonard's injury in 2021 NBA Playoffs
GP PPG FGA FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG
Before Kawhi's injury 11 24.9 18.0 44.4 36.1 8.6 5.2 0.7
After Kawhi's injury 8 29.6 22.0 43.8 30.4 11.0 5.6 1.4

As you can see, his scoring, rebounding, assists and steals average all went up, while his field goal percentage dropped ever-so-slightly. When the Clippers needed him most, George was there to help the franchise advance to their first-ever Conference Finals appearance even without their best player.

George went for 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists to help LA win a pivotal Game 5 and take a 3-2 series lead over the Jazz, only to close things out with an epic comeback in Game 6. George stayed hot in the Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns, recording three double-doubles in six games, scoring more than 20 points in each contest.

He had a near-triple-double of 27 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists to give the Clippers their first win of the series in Game 3. He then extended their season when facing elimination, dropping a playoff career-high 41 points to go with 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals in a Game 5 win.

Although the Clippers came up two wins shy of advancing to their first-ever NBA Finals, George overcame those previous postseason shortcomings by making a statement on the big stage, proving he's ready to shoulder all responsibility in Leonard's absence.

That playoff performance shouldn't leave much concern heading into this upcoming season, but it is vital that the 31-year-old keeps a clean bill of health. In two seasons with the Clippers, George has missed 42 of 144 available regular season games due to various injuries.

If he can stay healthy, Paul George will be in line for a statement season in 2021-22, where keeping the LA Clippers in contention could coincide with MVP consideration once again.

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