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Paul George’s passing saves Clippers against Celtics, and could be the key to their championship hopes

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are remarkably similar players as far as superstar teammates go. They are both excellent defenders, and that is how they made their names in the NBA. They both started out as shaky shooters, but developed into elite snipers with time, and both have leveraged that shooting into high-level one-on-one scoring chops. When George’s Pacers drafted Leonard in 2011, the two were so similar that both told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN that they expressed doubts about a potential partnership at the time. 

Those concerns were obviously addressed prior to their offseason union, but the elephant in the room leading up to their debut with one another on Wednesday was that they even shared the same weakness. Neither has ever been an elite passer, particularly out of double teams, and that was the hole that the Boston Celtics tried to exploit on Wednesday. Whenever possible, Brad Stevens instructed his defense to double-team Leonard and George off of ball screens in an effort to force them into bad passes. Things went according to plan early on. 

The Clippers turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. They scored only 40 points in those two quarters thanks in large part to sloppiness from Leonard. Had Boston not shot 1-for-18 from behind the arc in that frame, the game may well have drifted out of reach for the Clippers before the second half even began. 

Obviously, it didn’t. The Clippers won in overtime 107-104 and that happened largely because George overcame that great weakness. While his five turnovers were hardly ideal, his eight assists were critical. What’s more, the biggest of the game came on an extremely aggressive double-team in which he displayed a caliber of court vision that exists in maybe a dozen players on the planet. 

Not every assist was quite so fancy. It’s just as important to be able to make simple reads, and George timed this kick to the corner perfectly, waiting until he’d drawn in as much help as humanly possible before actually delivering the pass. 

These kinds of plays represent the last temptation of a defense, born out of compromises that only truly elite offenses ever get to force opponents to make. Boston’s fear of George and Leonard was so great that they were willing to leave Patrick Beverley, a career 37.4 percent shooter from behind the arc, wide open with the hope that he either wouldn’t be able to get the ball, or that he would miss once he did. 

If this strategy sounds vaguely familiar, it is essentially the level of respect that defenses used to award the Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll. Green’s man would double Curry off of the screen. The defender in the corner would help up to Green, hoping that his man, usually Andre Iguodala, would just miss his inevitable open shot. Shuttle through every great offense of this era and defenses were forced to make some version of that concession. It is what happens when an offense is so potent that a team can do nothing against it but pray for misses. 

That is where the Clippers are after only one game with Leonard and George playing together. The league hoped and prayed that their previous struggles as passers would be enough to keep the Clippers from reaching such lofty heights, but Leonard has been showing off his improved playmaking all year. George did so tonight, and if they keep it up, the Clippers become essentially flawless on offense.