Charles Barkley is right about Paul George. 

You can’t go and self-ordain yourself a postseason star with a spiffy nickname if your tendency is to dim once the lights are at their most intense. 

Or, as Chuck put it the other night on TNT: “You can’t be calling yourself ‘Playoff P’ and lose all the time,” Barkley said. “You don’t see me walking around saying ‘I won the championship’ because I didn’t win it. They don’t call me Championship Chuck.”

At this rate, the same will end up being true for George. On Sunday, in an overtime thriller that showcased the postseason potential of Luka Doncic — he put up a 43-point triple-double and knocked down a game-winner at the buzzer for Dallas — we got something else entirely from George.

It was an incredible Game 4 in which neither of the team’s secondary stars showed up. For Luka and Dallas, there was no Kristaps Porzingis, who was a late scratch due to injury. But for Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, George was absent despite being present, abdicating any real role late in the game of his own accord. The “P” in his silly nickname stood for “painful” more than anything else. 

George was a dispiriting 3 of 14 from the field, including 1 of 7 on 3s, a bleak reminder to Clippers fans that they need him to show up and play great to have any real chance this postseason. Instead, he mustered just three shots in the fourth quarter and overtime, making one. 

As for much of P.G.’s playoff career, when he wasn’t hiding from the moment, he was failing at it. Winning cures all things, sure, but you gotta win to get that cure, and it sure helps if stars play like them to get those wins.

To say George has much to prove this postseason is a massive understatement. 

But here’s the thing: He’s in pretty good company.

To different levels — and in different ways — several of the game’s best players still have much to prove about their greatness in the playoffs and the ability for their skills to come to the forefront in the game’s toughest moments.

Think George, sure, but also Anthony Davis, James Harden and Chris Paul. Giannis Antetokounmpo will soon be a two-time MVP, but time will tell about whether he’s also a player with an actual Finals appearance. Even Damian Lillard, to some, still has much to prove.

Because fair or not fair, actual greatness in the NBA is measured by playoff success. Not near-success. Not almost-success. Actual, tangible championships, something neither A.D., CP3, Lillard, P.G. or Giannis have yet to even approach. 

Outside of James Harden with the Thunder when he came off the bench, none have made an NBA Finals. All, in their own ways, need to this time around.

These things matter. Take Karl Malone, who actually made two NBA Finals — and in each time ran into Michael Jordan, still the greatest player of all time. Malone is second on the NBA all-time scoring list, he’s eighth all time in rebounds, and he’s a two-time MVP. He’s also an afterthought, a star diminished by what he did not do, because rings are what we remember for players who aspire to a level of legacy that will last beyond their playing days.

So far, Malone has a resume far superior to that of CP3, Harden, P.G., even Harden and Giannis. And Malone is all but forgotten, hard pressed to make any serious all-time top 10 list. He couldn’t even crack CBS Sports’ all-time top 15 list earlier this year.

Beat Jordan once, he’s a legend. Instead what he accomplished often feels invisible.

These things matter.

Lillard, to me, does not belong on this list. He has stayed. He himself sent George home last year when P.G. was with the Thunder. “Dame Time” is real. “Playoff P” is a joke. Giannis is too early in his career to assess with any kind of “can’t win big” label, but that could change this year if Milwaukee fails to earn its way to the Finals.

We take for granted the level of silly greatness the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Michael Jordan, to name a few, have brought to bear in the playoffs. And on the other side of the spectrum we fail to fully recognize that not every star can be one in those moments, enough times, over and over, to be the focal point and catalyst of a championship team.

If, right now, I had to rank some of these names from least unreliable in the playoffs to most, it would go something like this:

1. Paul George
2. James Harden
3. Anthony Davis
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
5. Chris Paul

It’s hard to see all of them reframing their place in the game this time around.

Let’s start with CP3. While he’s yet to make a Finals, ever, in his storied career, and despite what multiple sources over the years have told CBS Sports is a very difficult personality under the stress and grind of the postseason that tears at the seams of a locker room, he is a superior talent and clutch shot maker.

Not since Isiah Thomas has a traditional point guard been as talented. I trust CP3 as the seconds tick toward failure of a close game in a way I don’t anyone else on that list. In a sport that’s part analytics and part alchemy, CP3 can be a toxic brew in a locker room. But he’s still a star.

Giannis seems destined to shift quickly off this list, but we’ve said that about rising stars before. The proof is — and, I believe eventually in his case, will be — in the winning. Some MVPs — Steph, LeBron, Kobe, Shaq, Jordan — lead their teams to championships. Some — A.I., Nash, Harden and Westbrook so far — have not.

Of all the names on this list, Anthony Davis may have the most to win and lose. No team in playoff contention has a better twosome than the Lakers. When A.D. shines, he can be extraordinary. LeBron, as we saw over the weekend in his 38-12-8 night, is still the game’s best basketball player, playoffs or otherwise.

So, yes, there’s a clear path forward for AD. But the Lakers will go as he goes, and if he falters — if, as we’ve seen at times in both the bubble restart and bubble postseason, he tries to hide from the moment — the Lakers will fail. And A.D. will take the blame. Already, some in the Lakers organization privately worry about his playoff mettle.

Davis has won just a single playoff series in his career. Blame his supporting case if you need to, but talent like his has in the past carried teams much, much further. 

The Lakers will go, as they have in the Portland series they lead 2-1, as A.D. goes.

When A.D. was 8 of 24 and 0 of 5 from the 3-point line in Game 1, his team lost. When he was similarly inefficient and ineffective in the seeding games — or, in the case of the Toronto game in which he took just seven shots, passive — the Lakers lost.

Yet A.D. has averaged more than 30 points per game over his limited postseason career, and he put up great numbers in Games 2 and 3 against Portland. That bodes well. But even in those two games there were moments where he seemed to fade and wait for others to step up.

A.D. can also, at least at times, rely on LeBron. There are no such luxuries in Houston.

James Harden is clearly a transcendent offensive talent. He’s a former MVP, deservedly so, for a reason. But, as with the loss this weekend to the Thunder, late in big games he can turn suddenly overwhelmed and overmatched.

Don’t forget 2018. That’s when the Rockets took a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors — and when Chris Paul got injured — and Harden faltered. He went 6 of 25 from the 3-point line (that’s a 24 percent clip) and 22 of 53 from the field (41.5) over those final two games.

The Warriors won that series, and Harden since then has often looked like a deer in the headlights when similar moments have re-emerged. Late in Game 3 Saturday, in an overtime loss to the Thunder, he often looked afraid of the ball. Harden took four shots in the fourth quarter, making just one, before fouling out, deferring instead to Eric Gordon, who took twice as many shots in the fourth quarter.

Not exactly the stuff of taking over a game and willing a team to a playoff win.

Then there’s good ‘ol “Playoff P.” Sunday wasn’t the first time — and it’s hard to believe it’ll be the last — that George played terrible basketball in a big game.

In his career in elimination games, George has most often disappointed. 

In Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals against LeBron and the Heat, P.G. went 2 for 9 for just seven points. Up to that point, in that series, he’d been averaging 21.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting.

Similar story against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the elimination game of the opening round in 2017. Or against the Utah Jazz the next season as a member of the Thunder. The best performance he’s ever had in an elimination postseason game came last year, when Dame — hitting the kind of big shot that has often eluded George — sent the Thunder home anyway, and George and Russell Westbrook to new teams.

Barkley was right. You can’t call yourself a prime-time player if you can’t even make it to prime time.

This year, as Kawhi and LeBron continue to shine, as Luka makes the case his playoff future is bright indeed, as Dame tries to find a way to turn his big playoff game into a Finals appearance, it’s not just “Playoff P” with much to prove.

Harden, Giannis, CP3 and A.D. all have so much riding on these playoffs. And history — theirs, certainly, and that of a league where lasting greatness is frustratingly elusive — tells us few, if any, will do so. 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here