George makes Clippers debut, scores 33 in loss

NEW ORLEANS — Paul George finished with 33 points and nine rebounds in his first game of the 2019-20 NBA season — his first in an LA Clippers uniform.

A pretty good start to the season, right?

“I thought I was terrible,” George said following a 132-127 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. “I got a lot to get back to just from my performance on defense. Just for the flow of the game. I just haven’t had the time. Getting a feel for the speed. This was essentially my first preseason game. It’s a lot to take from this, and take it into the next one.”

Playing for the first time after offseason shoulder surgeries, George had his highest point total in a season opener in his career, and the fourth-highest point total for someone making his Clippers debut. But there was more to his first game back than just scoring. He started off hot from the field, with 10 points in the first quarter, but also picked up four fouls in the first half and his fifth in the third quarter.

“It was tough,” George said after playing 24 minutes. “It put in perspective coming back to the same league with foul trouble.”

But when George wasn’t dealing with fouls, he was torching the Pelicans’ defense. He had 14 points in the first half, and put up 12 in the third quarter alone, after which the Clippers held a 97-96 lead.

In the fourth quarter, though, the Pelicans stuck Jrue Holiday on George, and struggles ensued. Against Holiday, George was just 1-of-2 with three turnovers, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In fact, all three of George’s turnovers came during “clutch time,” when the game is within five points or less in the final five minutes.

“We had the chance to win tonight — and a couple of bad possessions in a row on my behalf down the stretch — and we lose,” George said. “That’s what I gauge good games, bad games on.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers had other ideas regarding George’s night.

“It was sensational,” Rivers said. “We played him about the minutes we’d like. I thought the fouls killed us a little bit. It hurt our rotations. But he was really good.”

Rivers admitted he didn’t think George would be as efficient as he was — George was 10-of-17 from the floor, 3-of-5 from deep and 10-of-10 from the line — and said he didn’t think George saw it coming, either. What’s more, George said it was the best his shoulders have felt in a long time so he knew he wouldn’t have a problem getting his shots off.

“What I like about him, just from one day of coaching him, he’s not only a catch-and-shoot guy, he’s a dribble guy. He’s also a post player,” Rivers said. “He did all three phases of the game offensively. You could clearly see, defensively, he was mixed up in some coverages tonight. And that’s just gonna take time.”

Clearly, George was being hard on himself, particularly on defense. Someone named to four NBA All-Defensive teams — and who was top four in the past two Defensive Player of the Year ballots — has higher standards.

“I put, really, all of that on me,” George said. “A lot of the breakdowns happened just because of my lack of being out there with those guys, communication. I look forward to watching the film, and learning from that. Again, one game for me and one game for those guys being out there with me. So we’ll move forward, we’ll learn, and we’ll start to get our chemistry together.”

According to Second Spectrum data, George allowed five uncontested made shots Thursday as the closest defender, which is tied for his most in a game since player tracking began in 2013-14. Three of the shots were 3-pointers.

With the loss, the Clippers fell to 0-3 when Kawhi Leonard rests. Rivers mentioned having to put a lot on Lou Williams‘ plate with Leonard and Patrick Beverley out, not to mention George potentially a step slow on defense.

“So when you have all three of those guys, offensively, you can take a Jrue Holiday out of the game,” Rivers said, “because whoever he’s guarding, you can play with the other two.”

Pushing past this debut, George said he remained optimistic about the Clippers long term. He should be able to play with Leonard on Saturday when the Clippers host the Atlanta Hawks.

“I’m fully excited for this whole team to come together, play with [Beverley], with Kawhi,” George said. “I’m looking forward to this team being at full strength.”

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