Paul George Says His Shoulder Is Fine, but the Numbers DisagreeApril 16, 2019
PORTLAND, Ore. — Paul George was impossible to ignore during the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs, and it wasn't for the right reasons.
George was questionable to play up until minutes before Sunday's Game 1 of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, which the Thunder lost 104-99. When he took the floor at Moda Center, his right shoulder was slathered with as much kinesiology tape as possible.
A year after George gave himself the nickname "Playoff P" ahead of a disappointing first-round exit courtesy of the Utah Jazz, he's run into a roadblock while trying to erase that narrative. He may be doing everything he can to battle through the shoulder pain that's bothered him for a while—he spent almost an hour on a trainer's table in the back hall outside the visitors' locker room before Sunday's outing—but it may not be enough.
During Game 1, George obviously wasn't right from a physical standpoint. Though he finished with 26 points, they came on 8-of-24 shooting from the field, including a 4-of-15 showing from three-point range. Many of the missed attempts were wide-open looks he'd normally make. But the Blazers defenders seemed happy to give those to him, knowing he'd be overthinking and overcompensating for his physical limitations.
The Thunder came into Portland hoping to erase a three-year trend of disappointing playoff performances. Now, they trail 1-0, and the clock is ticking for George's shoulder to heal, or for the team to find a way to beat a deep Blazers team without him at full strength.
"Four days ago, I couldn't even lift my shoulder," George admitted after Game 1. "And then fast-forward to today, it was the first time I shot the ball [since then]."
George's shoulder has been a concern for some time.
After he hit the game-winner during April 9's victory over the Houston Rockets, he sat out Oklahoma City’s regular-season finale against the Milwaukee Bucks. Down the stretch of the 2018-19 campaign, the effects of his lingering shoulder pain were noticeable, and they impacted his performance significantly.
Following a scorching start to the season that firmly established George in the MVP conversation, his production tailed off considerably. After the All-Star break, his field-goal percentage dropped from 45.3 to 40.0, and he went from 40.6 percent to 33.6 percent beyond the arc.
That troubling downward trend continued in Game 1 against the Blazers, and the rest of the team's shooting didn't help. As a whole, Oklahoma City went just 5-of-33 from deep (15.2 percent) and 37-of-93 from the field (39.8 percent). The Thunder adjusted their defense after a disastrous first quarter in which they gave up 39 points, but the misfires proved impossible to overcome.
That isn't all on George. Dennis Schroder missed all seven of his three-point attempts. Russell Westbrook missed all four of his. Foul trouble limited starting shooting guard Terrance Ferguson to 16 minutes.
But George has been Oklahoma City's best player on both ends of the floor all season. If he remains this limited, the Thunder's path to their first playoff series victory since Kevin Durant's 2016 departure becomes a lot tougher.
After Monday's practice in Portland, George insisted his shoulder is pain-free.
"It's well enough now to throw out any injury problems," he said. "It didn't have an effect during the game, regardless of me taking hits, falling to the deck. It didn't have any effect. I hadn't shot or picked the ball up in four days. Yesterday was my first day giving it a go on the court. It's going to be some shots that go in and out, shots that don't fall."
Of course, he said all of that while wearing a sizeable ice wrap on that shoulder, on top of all of that KT tape. Pain tolerance is one thing; fully returning to form just three days after being unable to shoot a basketball is another.
For Oklahoma City, his status is touch and go.
"He's cleared to play, so that's all I can really go off," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said Monday after practice. "He was cleared to play in the Houston game, and he kind of got jerked along and reaggravated it again. So something could happen. But in the state he's in now, he's fine. Something could always happen. We'll always put his health first, but he's a big part of how he's feeling. He's got to give the medical staff feedback, but I've never had someone tell me he's restricted. But right now, I think he feels pretty good."
The Thunder's performance in the series-opening game did provide some reasons for encouragement, despite George's injury and the cold shooting.
The team bounced back defensively after Portland's offensive explosion in the first quarter, holding the Blazers to 15 points in the second and cutting the halftime deficit to six. Westbrook overcame an invisible first half to score 14 points in the final two periods. The law of averages indicates OKC won't collectively shoot 15.2 percent from three-point range for a second straight game.
But with George limited by his shoulder and Ferguson by fouls, Oklahoma City had no answer for Portland's dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who combined for 54 points and eight of the Blazers' 11 three-pointers.
More concerningly, the Thunder were bullied on both ends of the floor by Blazers center Enes Kanter, who finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds. He also played surprisingly solid defense given the reputation for porosity that dates back to his Oklahoma City days. Like the Thunder's awful shooting, Kanter's two-way effectiveness may be an outlier. But a big part of their hope in this series hinges on their ability to play him off the floor by attacking him in pick-and-rolls.
A healthy George could be exactly the scoring threat to force that issue, but not the version that took the floor Sunday.
Westbrook took a backseat to George as the Thunder's leading scorer all season, and the result was a career year for George. Now, they may be forced to have the point guard lead them past the Blazers. Given his historically poor shooting season, Portland will gladly try its luck with him in hero mode while attacking this version of George.
At this point, no drastic strategic change the Thunder can make would paper over their most important player's health. Outwardly, they're confident Tuesday's result will be different if they stick to what led them here.
"We played a good game," George said. "We missed shots that we made all year. They just didn't go down for us. The home team did what they were supposed to do, come out and win the first game on their floor. It's about adjustments. We'll adjust, and we'll be ready."
The Thunder may well be ready for Portland on Tuesday. But if George's shoulder looks the way it did Sunday, it might not matter.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow Sean on Twitter at @highkin.