The superstar forward has rediscovered his game and is itching to lift Indiana back to its contender status in the East
The Indiana Pacers waited for Paul George. Now Paul George waits for the Pacers.
Paul George is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists this season.
George, Indiana’s talented, two-way star who has been remarkable in his recovery so far this season, is largely responsible for the switcheroo of subject and object in that first paragraph. George missed all but six games last season while rehabbing from the ghastly leg fractures he suffered in Team USA’s intrasquad scrimmage in August 2014. And while he was gone, well, things at Bankers Life Fieldhouse changed.
I’m used to being in the playoffs. I’m used to going far in the playoffs. And I don’t want to experience not being in the playoffs. That’s my goal. That’s my challenge. To make sure we get back to that point.
– Paul George
When George went down, the Pacers were one of the NBA’s dominant teams. They had climbed a ladder of success in the Eastern Conference, winning a total of 105 games in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 regular seasons and twice reaching the conference finals before being eliminated by the Miami Heat.
When George came back this fall — let’s call his return last spring a mere test drive on that repaired right leg — he re-joined a team with only four familiar faces (George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen, Solomon Hill) from the one he’d left 17 months earlier. And with none of the swagger associated with winning, not after a 38-44 finish that left Indiana out of the playoffs.
It’s not quite like the old joke about parents moving while their kids are at school and leaving behind no forwarding address. But the Pacers did move on George in his absence.
“My challenge with this new group and the tradition that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” George said Monday in Chicago, prior to Indiana’s one-point loss at United Center, “it’s up to me to get us back to that point. And I take it as a fun challenge. I’m used to being in the playoffs. I’m used to going far in the playoffs. And I don’t want to experience not being in the playoffs.
“That’s my goal. That’s my challenge. To make sure we get back to that point. Make sure we’re competing with the top teams in our conference. And y’know, when it comes to late April, early May, hopefully we’re in position to do so.”
Paul George vs. Derrick Rose
Paul George records 26 points and seven rebounds, Derrick Rose records 23 points and six assists in the Pacers-Bulls matchup.
Paul is at the peak of his powers, averaging career highs in points (24.5), rebounds (8.6) and assists (4.6), while hitting 41.5 percent of his 3-pointers. The Pacers are not at the peak of theirs, of course, in this season of stylistic change. At team president Larry Bird‘s decree last spring, Indiana abandoned the defensive-grounded, big-man dominant approach that had Roy Hibbert and David West anchoring the frontcourt. The league had gotten faster, featuring more space and 3-pointers and, dad gummit, the Pacers were going to change along with it.
So after treating 2014-15 as a season to keep George’s seat warm, Bird altered the franchise’s trajectory. Early on, George didn’t like the idea of playing some muscled-up power forward position. But that has sorted itself out to everyone’s satisfaction, with C.J. Miles and Chase Budinger handling the titular “four” role while George primarily has been what he’s always been.
“He’s playing the ‘three’ and guarding the ‘threes,’ pretty much since we started with this,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “The change in our team’s philosophy is that he’s got another 3-point threat out there at the ‘four’ spot. That it’s four perimeter guys and one big.”
“There is a big stylistic change to our team but it’s less about his position and more about our team approach.”
The whole recovery was to get back to this point. Having the whole year out to work on myself, it was just a matter of time.
– Paul George
Vogel is the one charged with making it all work, the one taking on losses and soothing the growing pains until it does. He would have been happy to prop open the championship window for one more season, rather than go all-in on this makeover of roster and tactics. But when Bird chose the latter, Vogel knew the past was past.
“Initially, yes,” Vogel said of a last-hurrah ambition with West and Hibbert still around. “But it was Larry’s call. I’m not sure when he decided to shift the philosophy. And I don’t know if it would have changed — we might have had the same group back if David West didn’t opt out. That sort of triggered or facilitated the Roy Hibbert move.
“I thought we could pick up where we left off. Give us one more run. Larry was intimating to me that he wanted to play a different style. My message was, if we get Paul George back, I think we can win playing smash-mouth basketball. And if he wanted go to a spread lineup, I think we can win doing that too.”
Sending the methodical, 7-foot-2 Hibbert to the Lakers was as much about removing a potentially unhappy player as it was fitting roster pieces to the desired style, Vogel said. Seriously, Roy in pace and space?
George’s Double-Double vs. Cavs
Paul George records 32 points and 11 rebounds in the Pacers’ loss to the Cavs.
“It’s a speed approach,” the Pacers coach said. “We want to have Ian on the floor — he’s one of the faster centers in the league and has benefitted from all this. But I think having offensive space benefits all players. So I think it would have benefitted Roy as well. I think that would have helped his post game. And his roll to the basket, having more space.”
The Pacers clearly are a work in progress. At 6-5, their pace has picked up –from 95.5 last season to 97.93 this season — though their ranking has dipped from 19th to 21st. Their offensive rating is off too, from 100.8 last season to 98.6 now. Unexpectedly perhaps, they’ve had a bump defensively from 100.9 to 98.0.
“I like to score,” Vogel said of the shift required in what had been his defense-first coaching. “But look, honestly, this change to me is as much about defense as it is about offense. The way the league plays right now, it benefits you defensively to have four guards out there. You can try to have your big guys chasing around the 3-point line — the Kevin Loves, the [Ersan] Ilyasovas and those guys — but it’s tough to guard with two bigs. So I think there’s more defensive benefit to it than offense.”
All of it hinges on George. Let’s pause one more time to consider how far back he already has come from his devastating injury and how dire things seemed for him and for his team in the first 24 or 48 hours after it happened. Back then, it looked like George’ entire career might stay in Vegas.
“Absolutely,” Vogel said. “You see an injury like that and there’s a good chance he never plays again. Two days later, the doctor says it’s a best-case scenario and a full recovery is expected. At that point, you think, ‘We’ll probably see him on the court. But what’s he going to be like?’ ”
George said Monday he is happy, if never fully satisfied, with his play of late. With his current streak, he is the fourth player in Pacers history to score at least 26 points in seven consecutive games or more. He admitted that, with four early-season technical fouls, he has to work on his give-and-take with referees. And he doubled-down on his skepticism about trendy corner-3-and-restricted-area analytics. Over the weekend, George reminded the world that Michael Jordan was a mid-range jump shooter.
“There’s certain stuff I do in games that I don’t do in other games,” George said. “So it’s all just about a feel of the game.”
Mostly George wants to fill the Pacers’ leadership void, have an All-Star caliber season, get Indiana back into the playoffs and play swell basketball all the way to Rio de Janeiro with Team USA in the 2016 Olympics.
“The whole recovery was to get back to this point,” he said. “Having the whole year out to work on myself, it was just a matter of time. Coming out and having the preseason I had, that was the emphasis I was trying to make: be aggressive and get everything I used to do, have all of that come back.”