Paul George leads Oklahoma City Thunder with elite confidence


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OKLAHOMA CITY — If you wanted any more evidence that Paul George is feeling it on a whole other level this season, look to the first overtime of the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s game Friday night against the Utah Jazz.

Down by two points with three minutes to go, Thunder forward Jerami Grant came up with a steal and kicked a pass ahead to George. A critical layup was coming that would tie the game and wrestle momentum back to the Thunder’s side.

But George did not complete a layup. He timed up his steps, and with Derrick Favors trailing, George elevated and cranked his arm back. Some 51 minutes into the game, he was going full windmill.

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Terrance Ferguson hands it off to Paul George who jams a ferocious windmill.

“That was a statement,” George said. “That was a statement just to let them know my legs is fresh. It’s going to be a long OT for that opposing team.”

The final statement, though, came with 0.8 seconds left in the second overtime.

After pulling in a rebound, George brought the ball up with the Thunder down by a point and 10 seconds left. He isolated on Joe Ingles, dancing between him and the help of Ricky Rubio to then see Rudy Gobert waiting. George had heard the Jazz bench throughout the game, imploring Gobert to take a charge on George, so anticipating Gobert laying back, George let go a moonshot floater. It left his hand with 2.5 seconds left and didn’t come down for nearly two more seconds.

“Had to get it up there,” George said. “It’s a shot that I work on. Just thank God it went in.”

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Paul George splits defenders and skies a floater over Rudy Gobert with less than a second remaining to win it for the Thunder in double overtime.

It’s not news to report that George has been on a new level this season, with George himself saying this is the best basketball he has played in his career. He is comfortable, he is confident and he’s completely in control of the game.

Against the Jazz, George let it come to him.

Superstar teammate Russell Westbrook had his jumper and scoring touch going, but George hit the switch in the fourth quarter with 17 points. George finished with 45 points on 17-of-31 shooting, nine rebounds and seven assists — with 23 of those points coming after the Thunder trailed the Jazz 107-97 with 8:43 left in regulation.

It was the third game winner of George’s career, something he’s aware of, especially considering the running joke of him failing in these situations before this season. Dubiously, George was 0-of-14 on go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds in his first eight seasons, with memes poking fun of his Gatorade commercial that proclaimed “no OT tonight.”

This season, George has made as many game winners as anyone, hitting three of his six go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. No, I’m playing,” Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell said of George’s winner. “It was a good shot, you know, he’s a hell of a player. He’s having a hell of a season. Obviously, he’s known very well, and hats off to him on his run, and I hope he continues doing it. Just not against us.”

Westbrook offered his take.

“I can just remember last year they were putting up Paul’s stats where he was 1-for-12, 1-for-10, in clutch shots, and all y’all were probably the same people doing the same thing and now making shots,” Westbrook said. “To me, I love it. And I know Paul loves it, as well, giving him confidence to make shots when we need to.”

Westbrook said he doesn’t necessarily see anything different in George in those situations, but he might see something in himself. Westbrook is more deferential than he ever has been, ceding the floor to George to play the part of cold-blooded closer, a role in which Westbrook has made a name for himself. This is true even though Westbrook missed Friday’s first game-winning attempt, at the buzzer of regulation, and then fouled out with a minute left in the first overtime. It left the game for George to win, and as he plots bullet points on an MVP résumé, the extra context around this game winner makes the list.

“Big players make big plays,” Westbrook said. “Obviously, he’s been making them all year long, and tonight was one of those nights where he made another big play.”

After being eliminated in the playoffs in six games by the Jazz last season, the Thunder are 3-0 against Utah this season, with George averaging 39.6 points on 60 percent shooting in those contests. He had a lot of reasons for returning to the Thunder, but one he has personally noted is how last season ended. He scored just five points on 2-of-16 shooting as the Jazz finished OKC, and that taste hasn’t left him. The edge is obvious when he plays the Jazz, though he downplayed it after Friday’s tilt when asked if it meant a little more to hit a winner against Utah.

“No, I mean we just need these wins,” George said. “That game winner wouldn’t have happened if the guys didn’t make big shots. Jerami made a big 3, Abdel [Nader] made a big 3. Those guys put me in position to win this game. The floater wouldn’t have happened if those dudes didn’t make big shots when we needed, because I went cold there for a minute but those dudes stepped up.”

Confidence in himself, confidence in his teammates. George is fearless in the moment, playing loose and free, trusting his game and the players around him. There’s no overthinking, no processing the consequences of a miss. Throwing down windmills and whipping behind-the-back passes in overtime, lofting rainmaking floaters — George is feeling it.

As Westbrook summarized: “He knows what he’s doing.”



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