By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Chauncey Billups clearly remembers when things started clicking for Paul George as a playmaker.
It happened halfway through last season when Billups, who was then the lead assistant coach for the Clippers under Tyronn Lue, would spend hours watching film with George, trying to teach the skilled wing to react to defenses and make the smartest possible play.
As they studied games, Billups would ask George what he saw. Then Billups, who spent 17 seasons in the league at point guard, would explain how he viewed things. After repeating that process enough times, George started seeing the court in a more nuanced way.
“His responses started being different,” Billups said.
Billups, now in his first season as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, saw firsthand how his pupil has advanced in the Clippers’ 117-109 victory over his team Tuesday. George had team-highs in points (24), assists (seven) and rebounds (nine), leading the Clippers to their fifth straight win.
George has been thrust into the 1A role for the Clippers after Kawhi Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL in his right knee during the team’s second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz last season.
The 12-year pro has fully embraced it.
George is averaging 26.7 points on 45.8% shooting, 8.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He was named the Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday.
He’s the fifth-leading scorer in the league, trailing only Kevin Durant (29.5), Stephen Curry (27.6), Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.6) and DeMar DeRozan (26.9). And he’s second in the NBA in steals per game (2.5), helping the Clippers have the third-best defense in the league.
According to Billups, George is playing some of the best basketball in his career.
“He’s playing on an MVP level,” Billups said. “I think he knows the challenge he has ahead of him this year with no Kawhi for now. You just want a guy like that to put everybody on his back and say, ‘Let’s go, let’s give ourselves a chance.’ And he has done that every single night. He’s just a matchup nightmare, man. You can’t guard him with one guy. Now that his playmaking is better, he just puts you in some tough spots.”
Last season, with the Clippers lacking a true point guard, Billups helped George and Leonard learn how to be more effective playmakers. George said Billups really helped grow his game, something that’s aiding him now when defenses collapse on him.
“I still look at him as somebody who was very big in my development, still at age 30,” said George, who is now 31. “He helped big-time with just playing point guard and making plays for others and taking care of the ball. Since he left, taking care of the ball has been something that’s biting me. But he definitely helped with just seeing plays, seeing offense develop, thinking plays ahead.”
Lue, however, has made it clear that he doesn’t need George to be a playmaker first. He wants him to play his game. He doesn’t need to try to be someone he’s not.
That being said, when the opportunity to create plays comes in the flow of a game, he wants George to trust himself.
“He’s not like a Magic Johnson or a player like that where they can come down and just know what they’re gonna do, like Jason Kidd,” Lue said. “I think him being aggressive, attacking the paint, getting to the basket, his instincts are going to take over, and he’s going to make the right play. He did it for us last year, and now he’s doing it for us this year as well.”
In Tuesday’s victory, George did a little bit of everything. He looked for his shot. He attacked the paint. He showed everyone why he’s a seven-time All-Star.
With just under three minutes left and the Clippers up 105-100, George dribbled from above the 3-point line to the basket, attracting a sea of defenders, and then dished the ball to Nico Batum, who made a 3-pointer.
As the crowd erupted in cheers, Paul slapped his chest and shook a courtside fan’s hand.
For Paul, who has been a lighting rod for criticism throughout his career, everything seems to be clicking right now.
“Just to watch his maturation, to watch his drive, to see him push himself, it has been a blessing to be by his side,” said Reggie Jackson, who had 23 points and six assists Tuesday. “I don’t think this is going to be his last player of the week. I don’t think we’ve seen his best games.”
For Billups, it’s bittersweet.
“I’m happy for PG,” Billups said before Tuesday’s game.
Then George showed off his immense talent, which Billups helped polish.
And there wasn’t much Billups could do to stop him.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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