OKLAHOMA CITY — The timing was perfect. The character was fitting — though no one could have known in the moment.
Utah rolled the Thunder for the first five-plus minutes of their first-round playoff series, fighting to a 16-4 lead to start Game 1. Oklahoma City was forcing shots uncomfortably and early in the clock. The Jazz were getting them back in transition.
So, Thunder coach Billy Donovan called a timeout. OKC started to run better offense. Two plays later, Paul George knocked in a 3. A couple of plays after that, he hit another. It was an introduction to what George would look like for all of Sunday’s 116-108, Game 1 victory.
“I’m going to bring it to that level on a nightly basis,” George said following his 36-point performance. “Obviously, I was hot tonight, but that’s the level I’m going to bring it every night.”
George shot 13 of 20 from the field. He sank eight of his 11 3-point attempts, setting a new Thunder record for the most triples made in a playoff game.
He laughed to reporters Saturday that “Y’all haven’t met ‘Playoff P’ yet, huh?” That same joke won’t play the same way anymore. Everyone’s met him now.
“When he’s aggressive, it changes the game for us, as you see it tonight,” Russell Westbrook, who finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, said. “Like [Carmelo Anthony] said, he got it going. Our job was to make sure we would find him and make it easy for him. As long as he stays aggressive, miss or makes, we’re a better team.”
It wasn’t just the shot-making which made George’s performance especially impressive. When he coined his alter ego, “Playoff P,” he wasn’t actually talking about scoring. Instead, he was discussing his hypothetical defense on Utah’s star rookie, Donovan Mitchell, who ended up finishing Game 1 with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
But George didn’t guard him much.
Instead, he defended Jazz small forward Joe Ingles, a corner 3 extraordinaire who operates as a tertiary ball-handler for Utah’s first-string offense. The plan of attack on the Jazz was clear: have shooting guard Corey Brewer try his best on Mitchell, let point guard Ricky Rubio, who’s not known for his shooting and finished 5 of 18 from the field, take whatever jumpers he likes and keep George stuck to Ingles, where he can disrupt a bit off the ball, recover in time to prevent those short 3s Ingles loves and take away another pick-and-roll option from the Jazz.
“It’s Game 1, and they’re going to do things that are going to give us problems,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And we’ve got to look at it and be better.”
George’s hot shooting will get most of the credit, though. He went exactly 13 of 20 from the field for a second straight game. And he got there by sinking all kinds of looks: spot ups, step-backs after razzle-dazzle dribbles and ones out of the pick-and-roll, too.
He got so hot that the Jazz changed their coverage on him near the end of the game, sending the NBA’s best rim-protector, Rudy Gobert, feet beyond the 3-point line to trap him on pick-and-rolls. It’s a style Utah doesn’t deviate to often. The Thunder swung intuitively from there.
“That’s part of the game,” George said. “They put two on the ball, you’ve got to move it, and you’ve got to force them to scramble. You’ve got to trust your teammates.”
George came into Game 1 as the arguable most important player.
The five-time All-Star slumped for six weeks before busting out for 40 points on the final day of the season. If he can be this series’ second-best player, Oklahoma City has the serious advantage. If Gobert or Mitchell assume that role, the Jazz will compete.
But forget second best. George was the best one on the floor Sunday, when he sat for end of the game because of a right hip contusion, a re-aggravation of an injury he suffered last month in Atlanta. He told reporters, “It’s good,” after the game.
It’s unreasonable to expect nightly performances that match Sunday’s. But if the existence of Playoff P means Oklahoma City has the series’ two best players for four-to-seven games, the Thunder will like their chances.