Despite Recent Struggles, Paul George Raises Game

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

March 27, 2014 | 1:27 a.m.

“Tonight was fun.”

Paul George uttered those words with a smile on his face as a throng of reporters crowded around his locker after the Pacers hung on to beat the Miami Heat in a thriller, 84-83, Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

George said before the showdown between the Eastern Conference powers that the Pacers hadn’t been having fun during their recent slide, making the game harder than it needed to be.

George, individually, wasn’t having fun either. Coming into the contest against Miami, he had taken 76 shots over his previous five games. He made only 21 of them, translating into a dismal 28 percent field goal percentage over that span. Going further back, George had been shooting just 38 percent in 14 games during the month of March.

So difficult have things been for George since the calendar flipped over to 2014, that the man who was touted as a viable Most Valuable Player candidate in the season’s first two months was no longer in the discussion at all. And as he went, so did his team, particularly this month. The Pacers, who entered the month with a record of 44-13, were 7-7 in March before Miami came to town.

George’s meteoric ascension coincided with Indiana’s early season dominance, resulting in not only MVP talk surrounding No. 24, but also real consideration of the Pacers – on virtually no one’s NBA radar just a couple of seasons ago – as the team to beat come summer, and the most formidable threat to a Miami three-peat.

How quickly things changed.

Indiana’s rapid fall was broken only by Miami’s own troubles, as the Heat came into the much-anticipated matchup Wednesday having lost seven of their prior 12. But despite those struggles, Miami found itself just a victory away from evening the Pacers in the loss column and having the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the East with 12 games remaining.

This game was critical. And Paul George raised his game.

“I just wasn’t trying to force, just let the game come to me,” said George, who had a team-high 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting, along with eight rebounds, four assists and three steals. “They overplayed me almost the whole night, so you’ve just got to make a read and go from there.”

Those were the X’s and O’s. But there was more to it than that on this night.

“I’m not going to see an elite defender better than LeBron that I’m going to face to end the year off,” George said. “So this was a good game to kind of get back on track.”

That’s an understatement. This was Miami. And George responded accordingly.

“That’s what Miami brings out of us,” he said. “They’re the champions. They know how to bring toughness. I just felt like it was a natural adjustment for us to be able to step up to the challenge and play Pacers basketball.”

Step up to the challenge George did, despite very rational reasons to doubt himself based on the way he had been playing. He was aggressive early and often on offense, and his fire was on display throughout the night. There was the first quarter bucket by Roy Hibbert that George was following in case of a miss, and when it fell, George slapped the glass hard and screamed with emotion, signaling just how important these 48 minutes in Indianapolis were in the big picture of the Pacers’ season.

Then there was the highlight of the night, when George blew past LeBron James and dunked over him, sending the crowd into an uncontrollable frenzy. He made the game fun again, not only for his teammates, but for himself. And that couldn’t have happened at a better time.

David West said that George had been putting too much pressure on himself to create on offense in recent games, leading to his struggles. But that changed Wednesday night.

“I thought 'P' was solid for us,” West said. “He was aggressive in moments, in spots. He attacked the rim and finished, had some big finishes that were momentum-builders for us. He took care of the basketball. He was good for us. We don’t want Paul working too hard. I think the last few games or so, he’s been trying to do too much on his own in terms of creating and off the dribble. We want to make sure we’re getting him shots in rhythm and he’s keeping the defense honest, not being able to figure out what he’s going to do every single play.”

What effect the Pacers’ one-point victory over the Heat Wednesday will have on the remainder of their regular season remains to be seen. But if what George hopes for this game to signify when it’s all said and done does, indeed, become reality, this could be the turning point. This could be the point at which Indiana’s ship is righted after veering startlingly off course.

“This should be a building-block game,” George said. “This is a game that we’ve got to get back to playing how we play. It’s got to be that way. This has got to be our brand and our style of basketball going forward.”

The Pacers’ brand is unique in the NBA. It’s not flashy. Quite frankly, it’s very blue collar. And for Indiana to reclaim its brand as George says, he will have to reclaim his.

His performance Wednesday is a big step in that direction.

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