For three-and-a-half quarters Wednesday, the Pacers and Celtics were locked in one of those weird NBA games that was close without being compelling. Neither team shot well from behind the arc, turnovers were a problem for both squads and as the misses and errant passes piled up, the game lacked a cohesive element that would easily define it in the next day’s postmortems.
There was, however, Paul George, and he was clearly the best player on the floor. George put up 22 shots, a dozen more than any of his Pacer teammates and well more than anyone on the other side. He was every bit the star that the Pacers will rely on to bring them back to playoff contention and exactly the kind of player the Celtics lack in their large ensemble mix.
That much was readily apparent, yet George didn’t dominate the action as much as artfully pick his spots. There was a brief outburst early in the third quarter when he erased a small Boston lead with a pair of threes, but it was down the stretch when he truly took over and carried the Pacers home with a win. Indy ran actions to get its star into mismatches and he took advantage by shooting over Marcus Smart, a tenacious on-ball defender who lacks the size to defend a player like George once he gets into his spot.
“It’s my job to go out there and perform,” George said after scoring 26 points to go with 10 rebounds. “I take a lot of pride in being our leader. I take pride in the outcome of games. I’m going to bring it, night in and night out. I’m going to be the guy that’s always going to bring it.“
The All-Star is returning to his elite form after a devastating injury and allowing his team to navigate a difficult style change properly.
This is what stars do and this is what George was coming to terms with before he suffered that gruesome leg injury during a Team USA exhibition game in the summer of 2014. Before the injury, PG was a vital part, but by no means the whole show for a Pacers’ team that won primarily with defense and a bruising frontcourt. Now he is the undisputed centerpiece of a fairly dramatic overhaul.
In the offseason, the Pacers cut ties with Roy Hibbert and David West, the latter of whom took a significant paycut to chase a title with the Spurs. They added Monta Ellis and worked on installing a spread offense that would represent a complete stylistic change from the past few years. It would also conclude the transition that began over the past few years as George grew from a player with tantalizing potential into one of the premier perimeter threats in the league.
“We believe we’re putting him in position to have the best season of his career,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Playing with a little more space, a little more tempo, we think offensively is going to help him explode onto the scene and take his game to an even higher level, while still having the flexibility to play with bigger lineups when we need to.“
After a slow start George has been fantastic over the past week. It started with a win over Boston in Indy when he also went for 26 and 10 and continued through huge performances against Miami, Cleveland and Orlando. After dropping their first three games, the Pacers have won five of six even with several key players missing time with injuries.
As they move on from the low post bullyball ethos that defined their recent success, a middling start could have spiraled into disastrous territory, but George has kept them afloat. He’s averaging 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists, which would be career highs if he kept up this pace. All of that is to say that PG looks like he’s back, although he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not back back just yet.
Paul George Duels Andrew Wiggins in Indiana. Paul George’s 29 and 9 boards leads the Pacers to victory.
“My skillset, everything on the court has been there,” he said. “I feel like with a year away from the game I was able to rehab and really focus on myself. I’m still trying to gain that little bit back physically. I’m not all the way there. Leg endurance, the foot speed, the explosiveness. That’s the little bit that has to come back.“
These are tiny, encouraging signs that he’s figuring out how to continue to be effective while his body continues to work its way back into prime form. George’s shots at the rim are down a bit from his 2013-14 levels, but he’s finishing better and his free throw attempts are up. A few more of his shots are coming by way of assist, but he’s still creating for himself at a healthy rate. All of these numbers look to be incremental indications of a larger portrait for the player as he works his way back and fits into the new system.
“Still trying to figure this thing out,” George said. “Still trying to figure out floor spacing. Where I can get shots, where I can get aggressive, where I can be a playmaker. There’s still so much to unravel.“
Much was made of the Pacers’ desire to have George play the four, which would open up his offense by creating athletic mismatches against larger opponents. Yet George balked at the defensive demands of the position and with good reason. He made his rep as one of the league’s premier wing defenders and asking him to defend pick-and-rolls against diving bigs is both physically taxing and counter to his own strengths as a defender.
“That’s how I made my name in this league, is wanting to guard the best player,” George said. “It’s what I do. It’s fun for me. I don’t take it as it’s going to drain me or tire me out. It almost energizes me to get a stop on the best player. It gets me going. I’m not a guy that likes to sit on the weak side. I feel like that tires me out more because I’m focusing on other stuff. I like to be locked in on one guy and do my job.“
This is by no means a finished product for George or his team. They may want to play with more pace and space, but their offense still ranks in the lower fifth and their pace is more in line with a team that relies on its halfcourt defense, which they still do. Figuring out combinations has also been a tricky balancing act for Vogel. He’s tried lineups with two bigs with varying success. (Lavoy Allen and Ian Mahinmi? Maybe. Mahinmi and Jordan Hill? Not so much.) For now they have settled on a starting lineup solution that has C.J. Miles at the four with George at his preferred spot on the wing.
“It’s an adjustment for our guys who are playing it and it’s an adjustment for me,” Vogel said. “There’s a lot of different layers to it. It’s coming. There’s still some stretches of games where it doesn’t look very pretty, where guys are a little bit out of sync but that’s to be expected. It’s going to be a work in progress for the first couple months of the season.”
While that work continues, the Pacers can be comforted by the fact that their superstar is performing at a high level. That will win you a lot of games like Wednesday’s against Boston and it might just win enough to get Paul George and the Pacers back on the postseason stage.
By Paul Flannery