When the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans face each other in a play-in game for the right to be the Western Conference’s eighth seed on Friday night, we’ll be witnessing a battle of NBA second-options given temporary promotions to marquee status. The life of NBA sidekicks varies. They experience a fraction of the pressure but revel in all of the spoils of victory.
Sidekicks on good teams can’t reach the altitude needed to clear the rough playoff winds on their own. Kawhi Leonard is an upgraded version of Paul George. Zion Williamson is the propulsion boost CJ McCollum needs for the Pelicans to hit their peak. Eventually, McCollum and George relinquish their grip on lead status, but for now both are thriving.
For most of his career, McCollum has either been a little-known reserve or Damien Lillard’s lieutenant in Portland. In NewOrleans, McCollum has finally begun to stand out on his own. Extrapolated to an entire season, the 24.3 points and 5.8 assists per game he’s averaged since becoming a Pelican would both be career highs. McCollum’s 32 points against the Spurs, including 27 in the first half was the impetus to New Orleans’ win over San Antonio. McCollum is having a moment leading the Pelicans into a playoff V formation.
However, George is the superior sidekick. McCollum has Most Improved Player hardware, but George has one too. He’s played in seven All-Star games to McCollum’s one, made six All-NBA teams, four All-NBA Defensive Teams and was the NBA steals leader in 2019. Since November, George has played 11 games due to a torn ligament in his right elbow, but is making up for the lost time. There was no ramp-up needed. He’s been the Paul George of old in the six games he’s played since the end of March. Even if the Clippers loss to Minnesota, George silenced the Pandemic P quips, tallying 34 points, hitting six triples, five assists and three steals.
George experienced the frontman lifestyle in Indiana for seven seasons. After flirting with a legacy-altering trip to the Finals during his formative years with the Pacers, hardship followed. He suffered a compound fracture coming down on the stanchion during a Team USA scrimmage and watched the team around him crumble after he returned to form.
The only thing lacking is consistency from George. In the aforementioned 2013 Eastern Conference Finals series against LeBron’s Miami Heat, George let off a stink bomb in Game 7, scoring seven points on 2-for-9 shooting. Everyone forgets in the discourse over George’s playoff failures that he returned the next year and was spectacular, putting up 29 in a Game 6 loss to the Heat.
The nadir of George’s postseason career was Lillard splashing a series-ending triple in his eye. George scored 36 points and shot 70 percent from the field but still catches flak for his “poor” performance in that series.
During the 2021 postseason, George was phenomenal in Leonard’s absence.His three 34-plus-point games in last season’s playoffs came in the eight games Leonard was out. George saved his best for last in the Western Conference Finals when he single-handedly kept the Suns on their heels for six games. George would be remembered as a hero if DeAndre Ayton didn’t sneak inside to catch the game-winning lob from Jae Crowder.
The pressure is on Paul George to give the Clippers a fighting chance. The Clippers are a veteran team who can’t afford to look to a better tomorrow in 2023. They were supposed to be winning titles in the yesteryear. New Orleans’ star is living in the moment, but understands the long-term vision.
“This is the start of something special, for sure,” McCollum said after Wednesday’s win. “You see the energy. Feel the energy. My mother is in town; I have some family in town. When we go out to eat, you can feel the city is excited about basketball, as they should [be]. There’s a lot of talent here. We’re playing the game the right way. It’s going to be a lot of winning in our future.”
If the Pelicans win, they will become the fourth team to make the playoffs after beginning the season 1-12 or worse. The last team to do so was the 1996-97 Suns. McCollum is playing with house money. Win, and there are no expectations against Phoenix. The entire offseason narrative will center around a healthy Williamson next season building on this season’s conclusion.
There exists a slither of hope that Williamson can return for the next round if the Pelicans advance. Still, after missing an entire season, it is doubtful that the Pelicans will risk next season on rushing Williamson out there to plummet like Icarus against the Suns. On the other hand, Paul George is expected to be enough for the Clippers to earn a rematch with Phoenix.
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