NBA: 'Whatever to help Russ.' How Paul George changed his game for OKC



Paul George was the last player out of the locker room on Sunday night, headed into the frigid Oklahoma City air to fulfill New Year's Eve plans. He was dressed like a living Magic Eye picture, a black-and-white triangled outfit on which, if you squinted hard enough and maybe crossed your eyes a little, you'd see a dolphin or something. It was eye-catching, to say the least.

George had original plans to wear it on Christmas Day, shockingly his first Christmas game, but scaled back and went with something a little more understated.

George has always been smooth, gracefully gliding around the court and handling the ball like he's trying to salsa with it. He has a certain coolness about him, and it showed on the last day of 2017 -- if he can pull off that outfit, he can pull off anything.

It's the way George has always seen himself: versatile, flexible, adaptable.

"I can play in any offense and play off any player," George said. "There was no ego that I was packing coming here; it was whatever to help the team, whatever to help Russ. I knew I had a lot to offer, and it was just about finding my niche and figuring it out."

Every season, George enters with a personal goal in mind: win defensive player of the year. He has made four All-Star teams and has earned one All-Defense first-team and two second-team honors, but he has never planted himself firmly in the DPOY conversation.

He has seen San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard take home the trophy twice and sees no reason he's not in the same category. Well, maybe one reason.

"I've thought I had some pretty good seasons where I was up there defensively," George said. "I just wasn't on the stage to get the recognition. But on this team, I can definitely own up to being one of our best defenders and take pride in that."

"You know what surprises me? He doesn't take any energy drinks. Being on the other team, I thought, 'This man is on Red Bull.'"

Thunder F Paul George, on playing with Russell Westbrook

It was during a national TV game when George jolted his name into the early award conversation. Playing against the Golden State Warriors, and a matchup against Kevin Durant, George was destructive with four steals and two blocks, outplaying the former OKC MVP.

On Christmas, he spent time checking the Houston Rockets' James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even Clint Capela while adding 24 points on offense. It's the marquee games that can build narrative and reputation, things hard to earn in exile playing mostly for the local market and the hard-core NBA League Pass subscribers.

"Yeah, I think so," George said of more attention on him, "but I only think so because we've been on TV already about 15 or 20 times. I've always had a presence and played hard defensively, but it's hard to not see now when we're on TV so much. ... I'm at the point where I'm able to be watched."

The term "two-way player" is an NBA buzzword that's thrown around, but players like George or Leonard are the ultimate commodities -- elite talents on both ends: "super two-ways."

George has seen his counting stats take a step back as he has settled into a role running alongside Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, something he says he's entirely comfortable with. In Indiana, George produced stat-stuffing seasons, with career scoring years in consecutive seasons before the trade.

He anticipated an even heavier workload this campaign, adding bulk and muscle to his frame in the offseason. But following the trade to OKC, he immediately started trimming back his physique. He wanted to get lighter, quicker and more explosive again.

And as he says, ready to keep up with Westbrook.

"I definitely felt I was heavy, I felt I wasn't moving as well. To run with Russ, you have to be in some good shape," George said. "I found that out early. I changed my diet, [did] a little more cardio. I'm able to move. I'm able to slide my feet defensively and get back to bringing that defense."

Paul George and Russell Westbrook have struck a balance as OKC rises up the West standings. Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The numbers George is posting as a wing defender are eye-catching. He leads the league in steals per game at 2.44, with Westbrook second at 2.03. George is first in deflections and is almost an entire deflection per game ahead of the second-ranked Robert Covington.

Among small forwards, George is third in defensive win shares and fifth in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He's on pace to become only the second player in the past decade to average more than 2.4 steals and 20 points per game (Chris Paul in 2007-08 and 2008-09).

You know you're defensively influential when opposing teams scout and try to eliminate you from the scheme. George gets screened incessantly, trying to force a switch in which he's taken out of the play.

"He can just [get a steal] when he wants to," one league executive said.

There's no question George is one of the bright stars in the NBA, but as the Thunder stumbled out of the gates, paired with some erratic shooting nights, there was light chatter building about whether George and Westbrook could share the floor.

Would Westbrook not leave enough oxygen for George's game to breathe? But George takes pride in a well-rounded game. He can play with the ball or without it. He moves, he slashes, he slithers around screens and he hits jumpers on pindowns. He defends, he rebounds, he passes. If you're looking for the kind of player who meshes with a distinct star like Westbrook, you want one who can do it all.

"I always just take pride in being a basketball player," George said with emphasis. "If I'm not scoring, I still want to be productive, whether that's defending, stealing passes, rebounding, playmaking, whatever it is, I don't ever try and pinpoint on one thing in a game.

"I feel like you can dominate a game in so many ways. That's just always been my mindset, just play ball. Be a basketball player and everything will fall into place."

The Thunder are finding a formula in Westbrook taking the lead offensive role with George playing off of him. George believes the next tier of recognition comes from winning.

The more success the Thunder have, the more his total game will get noticed: A rising tide lifts all superstars.

That's why George has preached to Westbrook, on multiple occasions: Don't worry about me; you just do you and it'll work out for all of us.

"You've gotta let Russ go. He's a talent that is a mismatch, night in and night out. He's a special player," George said. "I've never been on a team where a guy is that elite amongst his opponents, in his matchup. So you love the fact he's fearless, that he's a competitor. You want to play with guys like that.

"Absolutely you want to be on the court, you want to be on the team, you want to play with a guy that is as fearless as he is. ... He steps on the floor and instantly you want to match his intensity level."

Before arriving in OKC, George and Westbrook had no relationship outside of playing against each other. But they connected quickly, more off the court than on it.

Westbrook and George come from similar backgrounds -- both born and raised in Southern California, lightly recruited out of high school, drafted into small markets with chips on their shoulders. They both like to play dominoes, have connected over fatherhood and are tight with their families, with similar upbringings.

After the trade, George watched hours of tape of Durant and Westbrook playing together and even spoke with Durant about the organization, for which the star forward had rave reviews.

One topic that failed to come up: playing alongside Westbrook.

"What happened between them two is between them two," George said. "They had a long history together. I respect the history they had together. It wasn't on my behalf to want to know. I didn't want to know. Whatever wasn't working, or whatever was working that we didn't know, media ran with it and thought they were against each other; it was between them.

"We were in a new situation, and I wanted a fresh start with Russ. Whether there was something that went bad between those two, I didn't need to have any opinion going into this. I wanted know Russ and get to know Russ for myself. And he's been an unbelievable teammate."

"There was no ego that I was packing coming here; it was whatever to help the team, whatever to help Russ."

Thunder F Paul George

So without much to go on, what's surprised George about the reigning MVP?

"You know what surprises me? He doesn't take any energy drinks," George said of Westbrook. "Being on the other team, I thought, 'This man is on Red Bull. [But] he takes nothing and he comes at a high level night in and night out. That's the most surprising thing to me."

Westbrook's planting his flag in OKC last September with a five-year extension caught George's attention, but after going through this with another superstar, Westbrook knows which recruiting pitch trumps all.

"Sales pitch is gonna be when we win a championship," Westbrook said. "Beat that pitch."

With noise around his unknown future swelling during a two-game trip to Los Angeles against the Lakers and Clippers, George has tried to compartmentalize. The rumors have been in place since George informed the Pacers he wouldn't re-sign, with word that the Lakers were his preferred destination if he reached free agency.

That was all before he was traded to Oklahoma City and joined Westbrook, with Anthony added a couple of months later.

Many are speculating an offseason jump to the Lakers for Paul George, but the spotlight on OKC might be just as bright. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

"I've been dealing with this L.A. stuff for so long, it's easy to tunnel-vision it, block it all and throw the blinders and shades on," he said. "I'm a Thunder. I could care less of what speculation is, or what rumors are; I'm enjoying where I'm at right now, I'm enjoying this process, I'm enjoying growing with these guys in this locker room. I'm not worried or dealing with that until the summer's here.

"I'm fine where we're at, and I'm fine where I'm at."

The bright lights of L.A. are still a draw to players, especially for one like George, who is from the area and grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant. But what George craves most -- other than winning, of course -- is a stage to showcase how good he is. He's an elite two-way player in the same stratosphere as Leonard who isn't unanimously considered as such.

He says playing with the Thunder has put the most pressure on him that he has had in his career, because of the expectations of the team and the expectations he has for himself.

"It's more pressure, more pressure for sure," George said. "It's not the pressure you crumble to, it's the pressure you want. It's the good pressure. You want to play up to what the expectations are."

Once upon a time, zip codes were a major determining factor, but now there are few teams that have the spotlight on them quite like the Thunder. If George is looking to catch eyes, either with his play or his outfits, he has that opportunity alongside Westbrook in Oklahoma City.