LOS ANGELES — Paul George drove to the rim, was shoved from behind and still found a way to score with the foul.
“I’m back!” George screamed before completing a three-point play in the third quarter Saturday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
Many came to Staples Center hoping to see Kawhi Leonard and George play their first game together as members of the LA Clippers. But with Leonard missing his second game in a row due to a left knee contusion, George put on a historic show in 20 minutes.
In his second game as a Clipper, George scored 37 points, the most in NBA history while playing fewer than 21 minutes, to help the Clippers demolish the Hawks 150-101. The 49-point rout was the largest margin of victory in Clippers’ franchise history.
“I got [a] new shoulder,” George said after the game. “I can’t say nothing else to that: I got new shoulders. And they haven’t been this healthy in a long time.”
George set franchise records for most points by a player making his Clippers home debut and most points by a player in his first two games as a Clipper. The All-Star swingman had surgery in May to repair a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder and another surgery a month later for a partial tear of his left labrum.
Since returning to play Thursday at New Orleans, George has scored a total of 70 points in 44 minutes, making 10 of 17 shots in each of his first two games and drilling a total of nine of 16 3-pointers. He has converted a perfect 21-of-21 from the free throw line, absorbing his share of hits to his body and surgically repaired shoulders.
“It could have been my first 50 [-point game],” George said of what might’ve happened had he played longer and not been coming back from shoulder surgeries. “That’s just how I felt, but … I’m a confident player. It wasn’t more so a confidence [thing] by me saying I’m back. It’s just a statement. I’m just happy to be back to this game.”
After spending the past couple of months working on the side and making his way back in 3-on-3 games with some of the younger Clippers, George thought he already had his shooting rhythm. It showed, as he made four of his first seven shots and had 15 points in the first quarter.
When he knocked down his sixth 3-pointer, a 29-footer to start the fourth quarter and push the Clippers up by 33, George just shrugged his shoulders like Michael Jordan once famously did. He added a highlight alley-oop off the glass to Montrezl Harrell before coming out with 9:58 remaining. George was tripped and took a spill, and Clippers head coach Doc Rivers decided he wasn’t going to risk anything.
“I mean, honestly, for a guy to miss … what was it, 200 days in a row he’s missed?” Rivers said of George, who did not play from his last playoff game with Oklahoma City on April 23 to Nov. 14. “And the two games he’s played, his efficiency is incredible. There’s more than just his scoring, which is a lot, but it’s his passing and his ability to play through contact has been unbelievable.”
“He’s taking advantage of our offense like he’s been playing the offense for five years,” Rivers added. “He did three or four things tonight that you can’t know how to do it, in what we’re running, unless you’ve been running it. Even Lou [Williams] said it once, ‘Wow, that’s tricky.'”
George wasn’t the only one who caught fire. The Clippers halted a two-game slide by making 53.8% from the field, including shooting 17-of-33 (51.5%) from behind the arc. Six Clippers scored in double figures, and the team was without Leonard, Patrick Beverley (sore left calf) and Landry Shamet (high ankle sprain).
Rivers said the Clippers could have Leonard back for Monday’s game against George’s old team, Oklahoma City, and that Leonard’s injury is more of a day-to-day issue and not a major concern.
George has waited a long time to play alongside Leonard. But with Leonard watching, the Palmdale native had a “dream” home debut playing for the team he grew up rooting for.
“For me, it’s a dream come true to be able to do this at home in front of family and friends,” George said. “There’s just so many faces out there that’s pulling for me.”
George later added, “Just a lot of familiar faces in the crowd. Honestly, that’s probably the biggest thing that I am most happy about is I get to do that on a nightly basis.”