Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, LA Clippers star Paul George takes the spotlight.
Context: Paul George bounced back from a rough Game 4 in a big way.
Down 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals, George led the Clippers to an impressive Game 5 victory with a playoff career-high 41 points to go along with 13 rebounds and six assists. He barely missed, going 15-for-20 from the field, 3-for-6 from 3-point range and a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
George made some history along the way, becoming the first player in franchise history with a 40/10/5 game in the playoffs.
George shredded pretty much any Sun who stepped in front of him in Game 5, but he benefited greatly from all the space that was afforded to him by the Clippers going small.
You know what that means - to the film room!
Breakdown: The Clippers have a five point lead with 8:33 remaining in the game.
On the floor for the Clippers are George, Patrick Beverley, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum. On the floor for the Suns are Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig and Dario Saric.
With the ball in George's hands, Beverley and Jackson park themselves in opposite corners and Batum sets up shop on the wing opposite to George to space the floor. Morris, meanwhile, makes his way towards George to set a screen on his defender, Craig.
Something interesting happens before Morris even makes contact with Craig.
Booker started the possession on Jackson but quickly switched assignments with Saric, per Saric's orders. Why? So that Saric wouldn't have to defend a pick-and-roll between George and Morris, which would've put his foot speed to the test.
Now guarding Morris, Booker extends himself out to the 3-point line and is in position to prevent George from turning the corner ... only George doesn't use the screen.
Noticing a big opening in the middle of the court, George decides to reject Morris' screen to the surprise of Craig and Booker.
With each of them guarding a capable shooter - Beverley, Jackson and Batum have combined to make 39.7 percent of their 3-point attempts in these playoffs - Paul, Johnson and Saric aren't able to get in front of George on his drive to the basket...
...resulting in a layup for the seven-time All-Star.
Why it matters: The Clippers have had a pretty rough hand in these playoffs.
They only got two games out of Serge Ibaka before he had to undergo season-ending surgery on his back. Kawhi Leonard was putting together another all-time run, but his availability for this series continues to be up in the air because of a knee sprain he suffered in the previous round. Additionally, Morris is battling through a knee injury that he suffered early in this series - he looked more like himself in Game 5, but still - and Ivica Zubac missed Game 5 with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Time will tell what that means for the rest of his season.
As much as those injuries have impacted LA's rotations, one of the few constants for the Clippers in these playoffs has been their small ball lineups, which they'll now have to lean on even more should Zubac miss more time.
Defensively, going small has given the Clippers the ability to switch basically every action. Of the teams they've faced to this point, the Suns are best equipped to punish them for going small with Deandre Ayton and Saric, both of whom are a factor on the offensive glass and in the post, but the Clippers have done a pretty good job against them. Offensively, putting five perimeter players on the court has opened up the floor for everyone on the Clippers but especially George.
George's layup above was one of the easier baskets he scored in Game 5, but there was a common thread in his dominant second half.
Whether it was blowing by Ayton in isolation.
Euro-stepping his way to the basket for an and-one.
Going to work against Jae Crowder on an island.
Going to work against Mikal Bridges on an island.
Losing Chris Paul with a crossover.
Or testing Ayton in a pick-and-roll.
The Clippers maximized their spacing by playing five-out, and George made the most of it.
It's interesting to go back and look at George's misses in Game 3 and Game 4, when he combined to score 50 points on 14-for-46 (30.4 percent) shooting from the field. Zubac played well in both of those games, finishing with a 15-point, 16-rebound double-double in Game 3 and a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double in Game 4, but spacing for George on offence was a little more cramped.
The numbers through five games speak to that. According to NBA.com, George is averaging 34.4 points per 36 minutes on .600/.412/.774 shooting splits with Zubac on the bench in the Western Conference Finals. With the big fella on the court, George's numbers plummet to 20.3 points per 36 minutes on .314/.250/.700 shooting splits. Not only that, but where George is getting his shots has been different. He's been much more aggressive attacking the basket and is settling for less jumpers when Zubac is on the bench.
Small sample size could play a role in the gap being that large - it certainly helps that George's best game of the series was the only one Zubac has missed to this point - but it is worth noting that George has played more minutes with Zubac (117) in this series than without him (89).
Assuming Zubac is unable to play in Game 6, we'll see if that trend continues as George and the Clippers look to keep their season alive once again.
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