‘That was a statement’: Paul George’s confidence is becoming unconditional

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

Down two, three minutes to go, 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 away back to the Thunder’s side.

But George did not do 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.

“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 one 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 off 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.”

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’s played of his career. He’s comfortable, he’s confident and he’s completely in control of the game.

Against the Jazz, George let it come to him. Westbrook had his jumper and scoring touch going, but George hit the switch in the fourth with 17 points. He finished with 45 on 17-of-31 shooting, plus 9 rebounds and 7 assists — 23 of those points coming after the Thunder trailed the Jazz 107-97 with 8:43 left in regulation.

This is 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 game-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.”

“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 may see something in himself. He’s more deferential than he’s ever been, ceding the floor to George to play the part of cold-blooded closer, a role Westbrook has made a name for himself in. This is true even though Westbrook missed the first game-winner 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 resume, 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 six games by the Jazz last season, the Thunder are 3-0 against Utah, with George averaging 39.6 points on 60 percent shooting in those games. He had a lot of reasons for returning to the Thunder, but one he’s 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 the game when asked if it meant a little more to hit a game-winner against Utah.

“No, I mean we just need these wins,” he 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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