SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick discusses Game 1 victories for both the Rockets and Thunder in the Western Conference playoffs.
USA TODAY Sports
If Paul George is going to play like this every time out – 36 points with eight made three-pointers in a 116-108 win over Utah in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Sunday – then you can count on the Oklahoma City star staying put when free agency rolls around on July 1.
If only it was that easy.
While George has endorsed his Thunder experience at every turn, raving about what it’s like to play with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and giving a thumbs up to coach Billy Donovan and the rest of his teammates, there’s a belief around the league that a first-round exit would greatly increase the chances of him skipping town.
The narrative, as most have surely heard by now, goes like this: George grew up in Palmdale, Calif., has always wanted to play for the Lakers and appeared hell-bent on making that move until Thunder general manager Sam Presti traded for him last summer.
But now the calculus has changed, and only George truly knows what it will take for him to want to stay put. And while George’s effusive praise for the Thunder life was consistent from beginning to end during the regular season, it’s this second season that will truly show him where the ceiling is for this group.
To that end, Game 1 was as good a start as Presti & Co. could have hoped for.
George’s eight threes (on 11 attempts) tied a franchise playoff record and were a personal playoff high – quite a feat considering the guy who used to have his job, Golden State star Kevin Durant, has never hit more than five threes in any of his 107 playoff games (the Warriors’ Klay Thompson has the all-time record of 11). And after all those years in Indiana with a dearth of fellow superstars to help him this time of year, here was the best version of these Thunder showing up at the perfect time against a Jazz team that had the league’s best net rating (and a 29-6 record) from Jan. 24 until regular season’s end.
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If postseason performances set the mood for players who are pondering big decisions – and they often do – this is quite the contrast to George’s last playoff game. Nearly two months before he would tell the Pacers privately last June that he didn’t intend to re-sign when he became a free agent in the summer of 2018, George missed 16 of 21 shots in a series-ending Game 4 loss to Cleveland.
If only George and the Thunder could avoid those kinds of nights from here on out, he’d be theirs for the long haul.
If only it was that easy.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick