The Evolution of Paul George Becoming "That Guy"

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It all started in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013. With the Pacers trailing by 3 points David West took an inbound bass and casually tossed the ball to Paul George. George pulled up to take a relatively uncontested jumper as LeBron James read the play and switched, but didn’t offer a hand of resistance as PG tied the game with a desperation three.

Don’t expect LeBron to do that again.

LeBron never needed a coronation to be king, as George didn’t need a dap from LeBron later in the series to announce his arrival, but by the end of the series, any intelligent basketball fan knew Paul George had arrived.

Then George took it a step further this regular season, playing better offensively than he ever had before, locking himself in as an All-Star caliber player in his fourth season in the league. Indiana fans pride themselves on the blue collar appeal of the team, but George has certainly brought the gold swagger of  the Pacer PR department’s slogan.

For the Pacers it has become obvious that he is “That Guy.” That guy they trust to win games. That guy they will let take on anyone in the final seconds to hit a game winner. That guy that will lead them past the Miami Heat and to the NBA finals and assumed, a championship.

But has he earned his closer status yet?

Just like any other star player, he’ll now fight a narrative constricted by both fans and the media. If the Pacers lose on a last-second shot from PG, the questions will come asking if he’s “clutch,” a term with no fully defined meaning but a word that defines too many athletes in team sports.

Clutch is always hard to define. Colloquially it is often defined as a game-winning shot, a shot that keeps a team in it, or one that might seal a game. Of course analytics has sought to define it in a measurable way. The NBA’s clutch stats break it down as shots in the final five minutes, and even further from there at intervals of three and one minutes, and even 30 and 10 seconds, left to play when the score is within 5 or 3 points. In that regard almost any shot in the overtime counts as clutch. Any relatively close game shots under five minutes fall under this definition. So even defining the nature of what clutch is can be a tricky prospect.

I mention that because we’re going to use some of those numbers here in a moment to break down what PG does in those moments now.

Looking at the numbers when the Pacers are behind by 5 points or less, PG has been OK so far this year, shooting 35% in the final five minutes when the Pacers are trailing and 36% when the score is within 5 points either way.

He came close to forcing a renaming of this blog when he nearly knocked down a pair of 3-pointers against Portland. He hit one but wasn’t quite able to close the deal. There isn’t any hesitation on his part to to take these shots, and it is a small improvement since last year in the final 5 minutes.

Numbers-wise it is hard to really separate last season to this season though. He is still around a 1-in-3 chance to hit a clutch basket. That in no way makes him very special, as he’s just behind the middle of the pack percentage-wise of players who have shot as many clutch shot as he has.

One reason he ranks there is because he’s takes around 45% of his clutch attempts from 3-point range. PG is 40th of 47 players in field-goal percentage on 3-pointers in the final five minutes in close games. In comparison, LeBron only takes about 28% of his shots from there in that time frame. Taking 3s more often is going to cut down those numbers, but the Pacers’ losing situations have forced his hand.

At the same time, there is a hole in those NBA.com stat numbers: PG’s four-point play against Sacramento. That didn’t fall within the under 30- or 10-second stats because it was a four-point deficit. Foul or not, Paul George had no problem knocking down that shot when the Pacers needed it. The free throw he knocked down with it added to the “clutch” nature of the play.

Then, on Wednesday night against the Lakers, he hit a three to close out the third quarter, another play that doesn’t call under the NBA parameters of clutch, but another situation where being cool, calm, and collected is needed.

Paul George hitting that clutch shot is a 1-in-3 proposition, according to the numbers. That’s not bad at all, but he hasn’t became that guy you’d bet your life on, which seems like a bizarre situation, but you get the point. Also consider the fact Indiana has been in 26 games this year decided by 10 points or more, and Indiana is 20-6 in those situation. The Pacers have only been in one game decided by three points or less, and they lost that game.

So even being in these clutch situation can be tricky to track down statistically. George’s numbers are mediocre, but there are at least two games (Kings, Knicks) that PG saved the day by shooting his team out of a corner. The thing to remember is he’s becoming a player the Pacers trust in the final minutes to make these baskets. And he’s slowly improving in these scenarios.  The Pacers are 3-3 in these situations.

Personally I think it is messy  to try to define clutch.

It was obvious, for example, in the Portland game that he willed Indiana back into the game with his 43 points, even if he missed one of his two clutch 3-point attempts. PG shot .533 from the field and .467 from three in that game. Calling it a choke might be a bit much. What about against the Pelicans to start the year? Against New Orleans it wasn’t George as much as Roy Hibbert, West, and George Hill that put Indiana ahead, but PG tacked on some insurance free throws. While the other guys were the ones to put Indiana ahead, George helped make sure they stayed there.

Not to mention we aren’t even talking about what he can do of the defensive end at all.

But all this is just part of a continuing story. If you remember, LeBron was criticized for his lack of “clutch” until he finally won a championship. Before then, even when he made progress, there was always another hurdle that people tried to add. But part of it is the fact a player grows, matures, learns. Now look at LeBron and good luck trying to convince me he isn’t clutch. Paul George seems to be working his way there, just give him time.

The good news is things are trending in the right direction. So far this season he’s shooting 5% better than he did a year ago, 2% better in his 3-point percentage, and the advanced numbers also back up the fact he’s playing more efficiently both in and out of those clutch situations.

Even if his number aren’t overly impressive in these clutch situations, they aren’t bad either and they put him in good company with the league’s better players. Indiana has made it clear they want PG to close out for them, and he’s proven he can deliver for the Pacers several times already. Mentally, Pacers fans assume George will deliver in these situations, and in a couple of games so far this year he has. The sample sizes are small, particularly in the playoff situations, but it is becoming more and more clear that Paul George is working his way to becoming the man who will deliver wins in these situations. It is clear that he’s capable of the task. There may be mistakes and false starts along the way, but it is all part of an ongoing evolution.

It is clear: Paul George is headed in the right direction to be that guy for the Indiana Pacers. 

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