LOS ANGELES — Paul George is not used to boos.
He’s one of the most affable, polite, likable players in the NBA. His game is aesthetically pleasing. It’s efficient. It’s complete. He plays hard, he plays smart. There’s really not much reason to not like him.
Last season, Staples Center was filled with awkward cheers during starting introductions and a fourth-quarter chant of “We want Paul!” when the Oklahoma City Thunder visited the Lakers. George, a native of Palmdale, California, had long been connected to the Lakers, and those connections intensified after he told the Pacers he wouldn’t be re-signing in free agency and his preferred destination was Los Angeles. The Thunder shocked the world by trading for him, but his visits to Staples Center in 2017-18 were viewed more as recruiting trips than anything else.
But George picked the Thunder in free agency last summer without so much as granting a meeting with Magic Johnson and the Lakers, so those cheers turned to boos Wednesday every time he touched the ball. There was a chant of “We don’t need you!” as he shot free throws in the fourth quarter.
George downplayed the reaction, staying true to form with a response about admiring the Lakers and their fans. He said he took the fans’ reaction as a sign of respect than anything else.
If he held any animosity, or extra motivation, he reserved it all for the court. He finished with 37 points on 15-of-29 shooting, plus four steals and his standard lockdown defense. As the Lakers hung tight, George was the tip of the dagger: When he checked back in with 5 minutes, 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City led by three. Over the next three minutes, he scored nine points on 3-of-3 shooting to the Lakers’ four points on 1-of-5 shooting. That was the game as OKC rolled on from there, 107-100.
There were signs it meant a little something more, such as when George picked up a technical for slapping the backboard emphatically after a first-half dunk. Though George does that often, he hadn’t been called for a technical for it yet this season.
There was an entertaining exchange to finish the first half with former Pacers teammate Lance Stephenson that featured a tough George and-1 as Russell Westbrook mimicked Stephenson’s air guitar move. A play later, George locked down on Stephenson as he missed a contested 3 at the buzzer, and George pulled out the air guitar himself, then did an “it’s over” gesture.
The game, though, didn’t start out the way George wanted. He picked up three quick fouls in the first quarter — Laker fans cheered each one — which forced him to the bench.
He missed four of his first six shots, including three 3-pointers that were considerably open, and had a bad turnover. It was starting to feel similar to the other time George got booed, in his return to Indiana last season when he did not respond well to the negativity, going 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers.
“I thought I handled it better tonight, given I’ve been in that situation before in Indy,” George said. “I thought I handled it better tonight with just being locked in, being ready. In Indy, I expected to be booed, but didn’t know to what extent. Here, I knew coming in to the situation what it was going to be like.
“I just wanted to play some ball tonight,” he said. “And that’s what I did. I wasn’t going to allow those officials to sit me out tonight.”
George has had a certain rhythm this season, and there are moments when you can see him flip the switch. Whether it’s a couple free throws, or a jumper, he has a knack for microwaving his offense, instantaneously going from lukewarm to scalding. It’s part of the comfort and confidence he has this season with the Thunder, knowing the questions of his future aren’t lingering over every stop he makes, especially in Southern California. He has a tangible chemistry with Westbrook, and more importantly, a bona fide endorsement from him, showcased in the fourth quarter as Westbrook deferred and worked to set up George again down the stretch.
George has admitted to pressing some last season, trying too hard to make it happen too fast. Everyone was focused on the one-year window it seemed the Thunder had, and the opportunity to build, evolve and grow together didn’t seem available to them.
“When we put the team together [last season], myself, add on [Carmelo Anthony] to join Russ, I knew right away the goal was to win that year,” George said. “I think we put too much pressure on that and we kind of tried to force it to happen rather than build toward it.”
A year ago, George could go sideways when games didn’t start well. He has said before he’s not the kind of player who is at his best when he’s forcing the issue, and there was a feel to that early on against the Lakers. The Thunder were trying to get him going, but that was probably less about answering some intangible slight and more about making sure their top scorer was dialed in.
“I don’t know if that gets him going … uh, yes,” Thunder center Steven Adams said of getting the ball to George early. “[That] is the answer. Yes. Whatever puts a bit of lead in the pencil, you know?”
George’s ascension has given the Thunder a bit of a 2014-ish feel to them when they forged an identity around a two-headed superstar team. But they have an ability to win games ugly, like they did against the Lakers, when they produced shooting splits of 33/22/64 and still won on the road. They are the best defensive team in the league, forcing turnovers in bunches and digging in to shut teams down in the fourth quarter. They can withstand a dismal 3-for-20 shooting night from Westbrook, who is mired in a monthlong shooting slump but still finished Wednesday night with a triple-double.
There’s an obvious confidence emanating from George, and though he lamented not getting to go head-to-head with LeBron James as the Lakers star recovers from a groin strain, he channeled the the crowd’s negative attention into ruthless aggression. He knows his place, he knows his situation, and regardless of noise — whether it’s from the outside or within — George isn’t going to be fazed.
“I look forward to the second time, later this season, where I’ll be booed, and that’s in the Midwest,” George said with a grin. “The booing wasn’t going to throw me off my game. I’ve been playing basketball for a really long time, and a little booing and a little noise is not going to make me forget how to play basketball.”