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Steph Curry’s in town, but leave room for Paul George in the early MVP conversation

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Last May, after the Clippers lost the first two games of their first-round playoff series against Dallas at home, agent Aaron Mintz called Paul George, one of his longtime clients, to check in.

Mintz did not hear panic, less than a year after George, the All-Star wing from Palmdale, endured an overwhelming share of criticism following the Clippers’ postseason collapse. He heard a tone so resolute he still remembers the conversation.

“We are winning this series,” Mintz said George told him.

“It wasn’t what he said to me, it was the conviction he said it with,” Mintz said. “I went from being like, ‘Is this how the season’s going to end?’ to ‘OK, they’re winning this series.’”

By the following night, there were even more believers. Teammates’ cars began pulling up to George’s house. Inside, over bites of homemade pizzas and baked wings prepared by George’s personal chef, a players-only meeting began with a film review that guard Reggie Jackson called “pivotal.”

“We started understanding how each others’ minds were clicking, what we were miscommunicating, where guys were confused at,” Jackson said.

Clippers forward Paul George drives against Heat center Bam Adebayo during agame earlier this month.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t only what was said, but how.

“We watched film and we did see [fixes], but it was like you started to feel guys’ energy,” forward Marcus Morris said. “You started to feel how impactful their words are.”

George said he did not deserve all the credit for the session, calling it the product of a collective frustration voiced by veterans such as Kawhi Leonard, Rajon Rondo, Patrick Beverley, Morris and himself. But George set the plans in motion. He told the personal chef to expand the menu. Ahead of the team’s flight to Dallas, he brought what could have been an on-edge locker room to a comfortable living room. And by opening his doors, he opened the floor for conversation and the team’s confidence in its comeback.

“I knew the team we had and we were too good, for one, to be down 0-2,” George told The Times. “But two, we weren’t playing to our capability, and I saw that. I wanted to nip it in the bud and you know, we talk a lot throughout being in the locker room, being in practice, but I felt we needed a little bit more at that time of communication because that’s what the playoffs is about.

“We kind of just hung out. Everybody chimed in and had the mic to say whatever they wanted. I thought we got better.”

Six months later, as a new season reaches its quarter-pole Sunday, George still is playing facilitator. The way he’s playing, with fellow superstar Leonard sidelined for the foreseeable future, is like a most valuable player, teammates and coaches have said.

At 31, seven years removed from a gruesome leg injury and still feeling limited in his range of motion two years after surgeries on both shoulders, George has provided more than 34% of the Clippers’ offense while averaging 25.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.9 steals in more than 35 minutes — his highest usage rate and second-highest averages in scoring, rebounds and assists after 19 games.

With the Clippers’ margin for error reduced by Leonard’s recovery from knee surgery, and lineups regularly depleted by the absences of Morris, center Serge Ibaka and forward Nicolas Batum, the team has seen George do seemingly everything short of again arranging the meal afterward.

“We need him to do everything that he’s doing for us to be in position that we are,” Jackson said. “I think he’s playing at the best level and he’s in the best mindset that he’s been in.”

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson gets a hug from close friend and teammate Paul George.

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson gets a hug from close friend and teammate Paul George after making a key three-pointer in a win over Oklahoma City earlier this season.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

He has produced “M-V-P” chants at Staples Center and what one NBA assistant described as the return of the two-way “relentlessness” that first made him an All-NBA player in Indiana and Oklahoma City. Against Miami he collected a loose-ball rebound and sprinted to the corner for a three-pointer to lead by seven, then set his feet on the other end for a charge. Coach Tyronn Lue still talks about when George fell to the court in Minnesota going for a rebound, then got up in time to take a charge.

“In some ways, I think I am playing some of my better basketball,” George said.

From Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant to Denver’s Nikola Jokic to Golden State’s Stephen Curry — whose Warriors take on the Clippers tonight — others have presented perhaps even more compelling MVP cases than George’s, which is not without flaws. He’s averaging a career-high 3.9 turnovers and there is a need, by own his own admission, to more efficiently set up himself and teammates for open baskets.

Yet more important to the Clippers than where he ultimately ranks in the minds of awards voters is how he has lived up to the team’s own lofty expectations.

“PG alone doesn’t get enough credit for the guy he is, the teammate he is, you know how positive he always stays, and the motherf— can play,” Morris said. “I haven’t played against a guy or with a guy who’s been that smooth in his game at 6-9, 6-8, being able to do what he does.

“He deserves this chance to be able to be mentioned with the great players, and I just feel like he’s always getting left out. I don’t know what it is.”

New Orleans coach Willie Green, who helped game-plan against George as a Phoenix assistant in last season’s conference finals, has seen a carryover this season.

“He’s taken on the leadership role of carrying the team as far as scoring and amongst other things,” Green said. “He’s just a great player and when those guys are asked to step up, they can do it.”

There are specific factors that account for this start, beginning with George’s increased focus on his body.

Few memories for George are more treasured than winning Olympic gold in 2016. Yet when approached by USA Basketball — twice — last summer about his interest in playing in the Tokyo Games, George declined, believing that with Leonard out for a significant chunk of the season, he owed it to the Clippers to be as healthy as possible.

George has recommitted to a postgame recovery program that can last more than an hour. He lifts weights before being plied by a soft-tissue specialist and taking a dip in warm and cold tubs.

Clippers forward Paul George  slaps hands with a fan.

Clippers forward Paul George slaps hands with a fan as the clock winds down on a victory over the Trail Blazers at Staples Center.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

On offense, Lue said he changed his play-calling to use George not only in pick-and-roll plays, isolation or catch-and-shoot situations, but a mix of all three.

“Ty Lue is calling a lot more movement plays to keep the ball moving,” one scout said. “We will see if that continues once Kawhi comes back.”

Yet many around George see this MVP-esque start not in the vacuum of eight strong weeks but the context of his past, to what George credited as “his journey” from handling a sudden promotion in Indianapolis and injuries in Oklahoma City, to the leadership shown in calling the May meeting at his house.

Mintz, for one, said he was unsurprised, saying George has operated best when asked to shoulder more responsibility.

In 2012, after Indiana’s leading scorer, Danny Granger, was injured during George’s third season, George spent hours in the Pacers’ practice facility after a road trip in which he scored four points at Sacramento and none at Golden State. He scored 34 points in his next game, double figures each of the next 14 and earned the first of his seven All-Star honors.

In Oklahoma City, only three years after breaking his leg, George took on the role of co-leader with Russell Westbrook, when then-Thunder coach Billy Donovan was struck that George never asked for more plays to be run for him.

“He’s an elite player because he obviously plays both ends and he impacts winning,” Donovan said.

There were legitimate concerns as to how the Clippers would compensate this season if George could not remain healthy. But he has yet to miss a game while playing the 10th-most minutes in the NBA. A self-described disciple of Kobe Bryant’s play-through-it mentality, George has called his workload repeatedly just “my job” and can recite his history of playing through injuries: In a 2017 playoff series against Utah in which he averaged 24.7 points, he was playing on a partially torn meniscus. The next season, he tore the labrum in a shoulder in the first game after the All-Star breakyet finished third in MVP voting. He shot career-best marks last season despite a toe injury.

“I didn’t want sympathy but it’s like, I see stars in the league, they’ll miss a game because a finger is hurting or a toe is hurting?” George said. “That’s s— I played through and I’m going to give everything I got to my team.”

By some numbers, George’s start to last season was even more efficient. But it was the finish that fed into his current run.

Without the Clippers’ rally against Dallas, winning the series in seven games, their season doesn’t continue to the second round against league-leading Utah and Leonard doesn’t have the opportunity to injure his knee. George doesn’t move to the No. 1 option and get the chance, in a Game 5 win in Salt Lake City, to face down playoff demons by scoring 37 points with 16 rebounds. The Clippers don’t tap into their resilience to overcome another 2-0 deficit against Utah to advance to their first conference final. George doesn’t feel a weight lifted, and emerge into this season feeling as mentally confident as he is physically sound.

“I’m at peace,” George said in October.

None of it, for better or worse, happens without the Clippers erasing their hole against Dallas. And it evolved from one important night at George’s house where he seized the moment, a preview of months later when he has been asked to do it every game.

“When you go down 0-2 it’s easy to give in,” Lue said. “But our team wasn’t going to give in. And to orchestrate that film session and get guys on the same page and seeing different things, I thought, was huge of him.”

TODAY

VS. GOLDEN STATE

When: 12:30

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220

Update: An NBA-best 17-2, Golden State is the only team this season to score at least 100 points each game. The Clippers (11-8) counter with a defensive that rates second behind the Warriors. Stephen Curry’s 28.4 points per game lead the NBA.

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