Column: ‘Playoff P’ arrives in time to save the Clippers’ season

Column: ‘Playoff P’ arrives in time to save the Clippers’ season

One of the most regrettable nicknames in sports was self-anointed in the spring of 2018, during an interview session in which Paul George was asked about his confidence in a particular postseason matchup.

“Y’all ain’t met Playoff P yet, huh?” he asked with a smile while still a star for the Indiana Pacers.

Three years of mockery later, we finally have.

Three years of laughter later, the joke was on the Utah Jazz.

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Three years of flopping, failing and folding under playoff pressure disappeared Wednesday night in Salt Lake City beneath the broad shoulders of a man on the verge of carrying a wounded team into history while rewriting his own.

The Clippers desperately needed Paul George to fill the sudden absence of injured leader Kawhi Leonard and haul them past the Jazz in a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 119-111 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday.

What do you know? Playoff P showed up.

“It was no secret,” he said. “I knew I had to be big tonight.”

The Clippers were forced to ask George to outplay his past, ignore his critics and finally embrace being a $190-million cornerstone of this franchise.

Who could have guessed? Playoff P showed up.

“Now Kawhi is down, it was just that mindset … to set the tone and come out and lead a ballclub,” he said.

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In carrying the Clippers to an absolutely stunning 119-111 victory over the Jazz at Salt Lake City’s raucous Vivint Arena, the embattled George led his team into a game it couldn’t win, allowed it to take control of a series it shouldn’t win and did it despite a reputation that he’ll never win.

In doing so, he put his foot down, stuck his chin out and sent a message heard from his Figueroa workplace to his Palmdale hometown.

This is who I am. This is how I can carry this team. This is why I belong here.

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“It was a big statement,” said Clipper coach Tyronn Lue. “I mean, just all the outside noise, it really doesn’t matter. Like they just try to make up anything, but he’s a great player.”

George was a player best known around Los Angeles for throwing up a shot that hit the side of the backboard in crunch time in last season’s Game 7 conference semifinal loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Now he’ll be known for scoring 37 points and pulling down 16 rebounds while lugging the discounted Clippers to a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series and moving them within one win of their first conference finals appearance in the franchise’s 51-year history.

“He’s incredible. … He was ready to put the team on his back to carry the extra weight,” said teammate Reggie Jackson, who was incredible himself with 22 points.

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George was known for seemingly shrugging after every big playoff loss, always claiming he’s not worried, even last year saying that the season was not a championship-or-bust deal.

Now he’ll be known as a player who, during one of the biggest games in franchise history, passionately set the tone with 22 points in the first half to help the Clippers withstand supernatural Jazz shooting and ready themselves for second-half domination.

“He gave us everything we needed and then some to get this win tonight,” said Jackson.

Clippers forwards Marcus Morris Sr. and Paul George congratulate each other.

Clippers forwards Marcus Morris Sr. and Paul George congratulate each other after their Game 5 victory over the Jazz on Wednesday night in Utah.

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

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Playoff P showed up early, telling Lue before the morning workout he was ready for the challenge of matching the impact of Leonard, who sprained his right knee in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

Recalled Lue: “Just this morning before shoot-around he said, ‘T, I got us.’”

Said George of losing Leonard: “It was a tough blow. … We got to come together.”

Playoff P came through late, fighting his way for a 19-foot jumper while drawing a foul that he turned into a three-point play in the final two minutes of the game that proved to be a dagger.

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“It just came down to trust,” he said. “Everybody just allowed me to lead.”

Playoff P showed up afterward, hugging owner Steve Ballmer on the baseline and then charmingly saying hello to his parents at the end of his postgame television interview.

“We just lived in the moment and we just played our hearts out tonight,” he said.

With George having his moment, and with Jazz star Donovan Mitchell clearly hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Clippers should wrap up this series Friday at Staples Center even without Leonard. Their superstar would need to return for them to have a chance to beat the blazing Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals. The Clippers are being mum about the extent of his injury. But that’s a worry for another day.

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Clippers-Jazz schedule

Clippers-Jazz schedule

(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

For now, a quick confession: Wednesday afternoon, when the sports world was abuzz with the surprising extent of Leonard’s injury, my editor and I discussed my writing a pregame column to comment on the potential effects of his absence. We finally decided to pass just in a case a certain someone appeared at game time.

“What if Playoff P shows up?” I asked.

Although I didn’t quite believe it myself, several hours later I had witnessed someone who appeared to be exactly that.

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During George’s postgame videoconference, somebody had to ask him the question, and I figured it might as well be me.

“Is this what Playoff P looks like?”

He smiled as he probably smiled three years ago, then answered with a resigned grace born of a point proven.

“Sure.”