As Paul George made one of his now-famous eight 3-pointers in Game 1 of the Jazz-OKC playoff series, he turned to Utah’s bench to bark and howl about his achievement, and the Jazz couldn’t do much but sit there and … hear it, absorb it, agree with it.
There was nothing to do but … acquiesce. And swear like an angry mother.
Analyze that first game any which way you want. George was the reason the Thunder won and the Jazz lost. It was one of those extraordinary occasions when a star player goes beyond what he normally does, which in the case of George is substantial, and just kind of goes into a different dimension. He feels his way.
There is no explaining it. No Einsteinian physics behind it. It just happens.
I once asked one of the Jazz’s all-time great shooters and basketball thinkers, Jeff Hornacek, exactly what leads to such a performance, whether there’s any logical or graspable reason for a player getting and staying in the zone like that.
His answer: “Uhhh-IIII-duunnnnno.”
Yep. For all the film study, all the planning and designing and technical brilliance of today’s coaches, even the ones with the biggest brains on them, this phenomenon remains a great mystery of the universe.
Quin Snyder said you’ve just got to tip the hat and move forward.
As fine a team game as NBA basketball is, when a great individual scorer gets hot, you lose. It’s as though he’s touched on that specific occasion by the finger of a basketball god. And no human can untouch him.
The only way to slow down a heaven-kissed Paul George is to compromise or jettison the entire defensive scheme. In the case of the Thunder, that’s hardly a solution to the overall problem. It means leaving a guy like Russell Westbrook open, and nobody wants to do that.
There is one other way: Give the man a hard body-shot and crack his rib. But nobody wants to do that, either.
Donovan Mitchell said afterward that the Jazz played good defense, that Playoff P simply made tough shots.
He was generous with his first evaluation, exactly right on his second. The Jazz can perhaps play better D. But if you chart the shots George made in Game 1, they were quite varied, from different spots on the floor, out of different situations, ranging from pick-and-roll to transition to catch-and-shoot to off-the-bounce.
What do the Jazz do, then, in Game 2 on Wednesday night to change their fate? The first part of the answer is standard — they get more physical on defense, just to make all the Thunder players less comfortable — and the second sounds like a complete cop-out, but it is the hard truth — they hope like hell George takes the same shots and misses them.
It’s a sound strategy based on the numbers.
In Game 1, George hit eight of 11 bombs and 13 of 20 attempts overall, for 36 points.
In the regular season, he hit an average of 7.3 out of 16.9 overall shots, for a percentage of .430. From beyond the arc, he made 3.1 of 7.7 attempts. He averaged 21.9 points.
Throw in last season’s numbers at Indiana, the best statistical year of George’s career, and the line went like this: 8.3 makes out of 18 overall attempts (46 percent) and 2.6 of 6.6 from three, averaging 23.7 points.
If you think the self-named Playoff P is better in the postseason, the numbers say otherwise: In last season’s playoffs, again with Indy, George took an average of 22 shots and made 8.5 of them. From deep, George made 4.5 of 10.5 attempts.
His career averages in the regular season compared with the playoffs, respectively: 6.4 makes overall of 14.7 shots and 2.2 makes of 5.8 3-pointers vs. 6.2 makes out of 14.4 overall attempts and 2.2 makes of 5.8 3-pointers. That’s right, his career playoff threes are exactly the same as his regular-season averages.
There are a couple of ways of looking at those numbers, compared with what happened on Sunday, beyond the inexplicable.
The first is to suggest the Jazz have subpar defenders to put on George. Some, including TNT’s Charles Barkley, have suggested that George is one of three Thunder players — the others are Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony — who can get their shot whenever they want against the Jazz. If that is the truth, the Jazz are screwed.
If, on the other hand, the Jazz are at least as good defensively as an average resistance, they can expect the ridiculousness of what took place in Game 1 to subside. The primary reason Utah had the league’s best defense over the final months of the regular season was Rudy Gobert. On Sunday, they wanted to funnel OKC’s attack straight into the center. That did not work because George was so accurate from deep.
The Jazz’s only real course for Game 2 and every game thereafter is to have faith in the connected defense and the system-oriented offense they’ve played for the past three months. If it works, good for them. If it does not, and lightning accompanies the Thunder straight on through, then they will get beaten by a better team.
Remember, though, the basketball gods are fickle. Sometimes they change it up. Sometimes they reach down and touch the other guys, too.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.