LOS ANGELES — A year ago, Paul George‘s visits to Staples Center were borderline recruiting trips, featuring plenty of cheers, signs and chants. But after George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency last summer, fans greeted him with hearty boos on Wednesday, including every time he touched the ball.
“It was fun, it was fun,” George said of the boos. “I look forward to the second time, later this season, where I’ll be booed, and that’s in the Midwest. It was fun. I enjoyed it regardless. The booing wasn’t going to throw me off my game. I’ve been playing basketball for a really long time and a little booing and a little noise is not going to make me forget how to play basketball.”
George got the last laugh, finishing with 37 points on 15-of-29 shooting in the Thunder’s 107-100 win.
“I’m not the only SoCal kid from this area that didn’t play here,” George said when asked about the jeers Wednesday. “But I took it with respect. This is an unbelievable organization. [I have] the utmost respect for everybody in their [front] office, for this city. You know, I’m a SoCal native. It’s always love here, regardless of the boos tonight. I mean, it is what it is. I came out here, I played my heart out, and I just have fun with it.”
George, who grew up in nearby Palmdale, California, has been linked to the Lakers for a number of years, but he signed a long-term deal with the Thunder last summer without so much as giving the Lakers a meeting. Before being traded by the Indiana Pacers to OKC in 2017, George listed the Lakers as his preferred destination.
George said Wednesday morning he didn’t know what to expect from Lakers fans.
“Not sure,” he said. “I’m excited to see what it’ll be. Regardless, I came here to win. That’s the only thing I’m worried about.”
After George picked up a third foul early in the first quarter, Lakers fans erupted in cheers and booed him as he went to the bench. The response was in stark contrast to last season, when Lakers fans chanted, “We want Paul!” for much of the second half of the game. As George shot free throws late in the fourth quarter, fans chanted, “We don’t need you!”
“I knew coming into it. There’s no shock, no surprise. It’s wasn’t like I was being wowed,” George said. “I was prepared for it. It is what it is. I’m the bad guy, and that’s fine.”
The Thunder stepped in and traded for George and spent the past season convincing him to stay. George told The Undefeated in October he wanted to play in Los Angeles but that the Lakers missed their chance after not trading for him.
“I wanted to play in L.A.,” he said. “That is where I wanted to go. Had that trade never went down, had I played one more year in Indy, I would have been in a Lakers uniform.”
On Wednesday, the Thunder were able to put away the LeBron-less Lakers with a lockdown fourth quarter, even in spite of Russell Westbrook shooting just 3-of-20 from the floor. George’s teammates downplayed the booing giving them extra motivation.
“No,” Westbrook said. “Regular game.”
However, some did take exception to the booing.
“I think it’s a bunch of bulls—,” Thunder center Steven Adams said in an interview with the team’s broadcast after the game. “We’re bloody professionals; we should be coming out every night and not just rely on the fans to do so. We’ve got a job to do. I think it’s more so us knowing we’ve gotta play it for each other, more so than just ‘all the fans are giving him a hard time, let’s play even harder.'”
George was able to overcome the early foul trouble to settle into a rhythm, but he did get hit with a technical foul in the first half for slapping the backboard after a dunk. George routinely slaps the backboard after dunks. It was the first time this season he has been called for a technical.
“I got dinged tonight, right?” he said. I don’t know. I’ve never heard refs call a foul on somebody and almost like try to rub it in my face by saying ‘good call.’ I’ve never heard that. I don’t know. It was weird. It was weird to start tonight. The calls that were being called. It was weird. But we got the win, I stayed in it and we kept fighting.”