It was the first meeting between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder this season. Always a good bet for some drama, this was the matchup when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went “forehead-to-forehead,” as TNT’s Mike Breen put it. Any interaction between Durant and Westbrook is sure to grab headlines, and that relationship was the star of the game. It was Paul George, however, who did the basketball things that mattered.
On the ensuing play, Durant received the inbound. George stuck on him like Super Glue, forcing a difficult catch under the rim. Durant, hopped up on some post-Brodie-battling adrenaline, missed a difficult shot from directly under the rim. Carmelo Anthony grabbed the rebound and passed it ahead to a breaking George, who drained a 3-pointer in transition to give his Thunder a 20-point lead in the third quarter against the defending champs. Oklahoma City went on to win the game.
The juxtaposition of George’s smart basketball play and the superfluous exchange between Durant and Westbrook could be considered a metaphor for the type of year George is having.
George is having the best season of his eight-year career, and it’s because he’s evolved into one the most efficient offensive threats in the league. Playing next to Westbrook has trimmed away the fat of his solo act in Indiana.
What’s most remarkable is that two seasons ago, George was slipping into the realm of volume scorers. For the 2015-16 season, George was shooting 41.8 percent on 17.9 attempts per game. In the last three seasons, only Brandon Knight shot with as much reckless abandon. He began taking a turn in his final season with the Indiana Pacers, improving his true shooting percentage from 55.7 to 58.7, and he’s maintained that rate in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
During a recent game in Sacramento, Oklahoma City won on a buzzer-beating jump shot by Westbrook. It was George, however, that kept a sleepy Thunder team afloat through most of the game. He chose his spots carefully. If he couldn’t dribble to the rim, he was kicking out to open teammates. If his 3s weren’t in rhythm, he kept the ball moving.
“He’s been really efficient and his first quarters have been incredible,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan told The Step Back. “The thing that was impressive, I think he had 15 points at the half on six shots. A couple of 3s, free throws. That’s efficient basketball, the way he plays. He’s really not taking a lot of pull-up jump shots, he’s getting to the rim, he’s getting fouled and shooting 3s.”
This has been the case for George all season. He recognizes that Westbrook is going to, well, be Westbrook. The things like the long 2s and hero-balling that started to spoil his offensive game in Indiana had to get clipped. Playing next to Westbrook and all his high-usage glory presents challenges for teammates, but it also presents them with an opportunity to pick their spots and be their most efficient selves.
George’s shot chart through his first season in Oklahoma compared to his last in Indiana could be on exhibit during Daryl Morey’s session at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference.
And it is Morey Ball. George said he’s making a concerted effort to play that way.
“Taking good shots, good looks. Trying to attack more at the rim. I’m going to get 3s based off of how teams are guarding me and running the floor,” George said. “On my behalf it’s about getting to the rim and playing at the basket, and then the 3s is gonna come off Russ generating a lot of offense and his force going to the rim.”
It’s crazy that a defense could leave George this open from the corner but, because of Westbrook’s gravitational pull, it happens all the time:
In his last two seasons in Indiana, more than a third of George’s shots were from mid-range. This season, he’s got it down to less than a quarter. He more willingly passes up the long 2 when it’s presented, seeking a better shot from his team.
It’s not just about stepping out a few more feet to pick up an extra point. George has gotten a lot better at attacking the basket. In Indiana, he often pulled up short of the restricted area for a floater in the lane or pull-up jumper. When he did finish at the rim, he leaned away from contact and, therefore, the basket. Now he’s lowering his shoulder, finishing through contact and getting to the free throw line.
“I try to attack and be physical and aggressive getting to the basket. Trying to put pressure on the officials to make calls,” George said.
Here’s some film spliced together of how George is finishing now versus last season in Indiana:
Only Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard are shooting as many 3s as George and have a higher true shooting percentage. That’s good company. Offensively, George has essentially evolved from Brandon Knight to Damian Lillard in the span of two seasons.
George is one of the most efficient scorers in the league, but he’s also a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. The league-leader in steals is a menace on the wing, disrupting passing lanes and leading breaks. Before Andre Roberson went down with a serious knee injury, the Thunder employed the most fearsome defensive wing tandem in the league since Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr calls George the “perfect modern-day defender.”
“He’s got the length and the speed to handle perimeter players, he’s got the strength to guard them in the post, he can pretty much guard 1 through 4 and, the way the league is going, he can even guard some 5s,” Kerr said in Oakland before the Warriors hosted the Thunder.
Golden State has struggled with turnovers all season and Oklahoma City does a great job of forcing them. When asked how he prepares his team for George and the Thunder, Kerr said “Show the tape. Remind the guys how active they are, and we got to play with some force.”
That’s why the Roberson injury really hurts. With him, Oklahoma City has as good a chance as anyone to knock off the Warriors. Watch the Thunder in person, and their size and length is striking. It’s the same formula that gave the Warriors fits and forced a seven-game series in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, only reworked with a more modern, less-Kevin Durant feel.
Everything starts and ends with Westbrook, but George provides them with something Durant never did: Someone willing to slide into the Robin role. He’s the Pippen to Westbrook’s Jordan, the Piccolo to his Goku. That was never going to work with Durant, and that tug and pull undercut the duo in their days in Oklahoma City. George is a willing complementary piece, and already his fit next to Westbrook seems more harmonious.
George has turned a corner as one of the most efficient two-way players in the league. This season has brought out the best in him, and the way he’s playing is the template for playing next to Westbrook or any other star — whether it be in Oklahoma City, Los Angeles or wherever George’s career takes him next.