OKLAHOMA CITY — That’s Paul George, no?
It looks like him, walks like him, plays like him — though not quite.
“Y’all ain’t met Playoff P yet, huh?” George smiled. “I’m used to these matchups.”
George was in the middle of speaking about Utah’s star rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, the man who he could be defending for the next four-to-seven games, when he dropped that line Saturday. The Thunder forward will make appearances on All-Defensive Team ballots, but he’ll brace for a change with Mitchell, who wasn’t usually his responsibility during the regular season.
It’s in line with the theme of Oklahoma City's and Utah's first-round playoff series: there isn’t much that’s the same today as there was in December, when these two concluded their season series.
The Thunder won three of four matchups against Utah. But Jazz center Rudy Gobert, the Defensive Player of the Year favorite, missed two of those contests and played with a minutes restriction during one. Thunder guard Andre Roberson, the would-be Defensive Player of the Year favorite had his season not ended with a January knee injury, participated in all four of them.
The Thunder were going through the most exaggerated version of their early-season struggles when they fell in Utah on Oct. 21. They hadn’t yet put it all together for the three December games, all OKC wins, but the Jazz weren’t their current selves, either.
“My personal opinion is, they’re really, really good, and they’re going to get better and better,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of the Thunder in December. “Maybe it’s good that we have to play them, like, eight times in December, so we don’t have to play them in February.”
The irony, of course, is that it’s the Jazz who have advanced far more than the Thunder. They finished 29-6 after a 19-28 start, thanks to Gobert propping up a defense that’s allowed only 97.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, thanks to Snyder leading well enough to earn Coach of the Year consideration, and thanks to Mitchell, who appears on a clear path to bonafide stardom.
Now, it’s George’s turn — ahem, Playoff P’s turn — to hinder him.
“It’s a fun guy to watch,” George said of his postseason persona. “It’s an out-of-body person where I just lock in and put myself into a different zone.”
George isn’t making stuff up, either.
The five-time All-Star has averaged 22.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 38 percent from 3-point land over his past four playoffs. He’s scored particularly efficiently during each of those runs, which included two appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, meaning a couple of series defending LeBron James.
He’ll now have to guard the Jazz’s most important offensive player, who he didn’t actually see much of during the regular season.
George was the primary defender on Mitchell for only 27 possessions during the three games Mitchell played against OKC, according to data compiled by NBA.com. The Jazz scored 32 points on those. Roberson, meanwhile, was the primary assignment on Mitchell for 78 possessions.
“I’m used to playing against the best offensive guy in these moments. That’ll be my role,” George said. “Not to say [starting shooting guard ] Corey [Brewer] won’t guard him, but that’ll definitely be my role, especially late in games, is to take that matchup.”
Mitchell didn’t burst as the Jazz’s dominant offensive option until a few weeks into the year. Now, he’s the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony in 2004.
Anthony recalls the challenge requiring a different rhythm than the 82-game slate.
“I remember having preseason my rookie year and I’m like, ‘Oh, preseason. This is cool. This is what it is,’” Anthony said. “Then I get to the first game in the NBA and it’s like ‘Oh, this is the NBA right here.’ And then I get to after the All-Star Break and it’s a totally different game. And then playoffs come and it’s like a whole other level.”
Anthony is referring to dealing with more than just an all-world defender at Playoff P levels.
Mitchell will have to adjust to Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s subtle changes between Games 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and beyond. He’ll have to recognize possible adjusted coverages. He’ll have to react to George’s growing comfort with him, as well.
“You’ve got time to dissect and watch what happened over that first game to see that guy again, see that team again,” George said. “That’s the beauty of it…This is where the experience will play a huge factor.”
Mitchell doesn’t have that experience, yet. It’s possible he’s so great that he doesn’t need it.
But regardless, George struggled to end the year. And if he plays like his usual self, the Thunder could have the two best players in this series. That will be especially true if he stifles Mitchell the way he believes Playoff P should.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.