BOSTON – He watched the fights breaking out among NBA players in two games on Tuesday night. They reminded Paul George that he was approaching his favorite time of the year.
“Guys are starting to get feisty,” said George. “They’re starting to bring that intensity; levels are picking up. And we feel it. We feel it.”
George is especially vulnerable to the imminent playoffs. “I am,” he was saying Wednesday. “That’s why I thrive. That’s what this game is about, man. Wanting to perform. Wanting to win.”
Here is some unnecessary advice for Eastern contenders expecting to earn homecourt advantage in the first round next month: Avoid the Pacers, because they have the best player in the bottom half of the Eastern bracket.
They have George, who last year flattened the favored Raptors in Game 1 of the playoffs with 33 points – and then frightened them into the final minute of their desperate Game 7 win in Toronto. George averaged 27.3 points and shot 41.9% from the 3-point line in that series. He has been referring back to those inspired moments ever since the All-Star break – a span in which the Pacers have played better defensively than all but five teams in the league. He has been tightening his focus, and his teammates have noticed.
“It’s like a dimmer switch,” said C.J. Miles, the starting shooting guard on George’s Pacers. “You kind of light up the room a little bit at a time. You can see it getting brighter and brighter, and then when it’s time for the light to be the brightest, guys are right there.”
The postseason can’t arrive soon enough for Indiana, which has not met expectations during this frustrating season. “We’re a playoff team at home,” said George, whose Pacers have gone 25-10 in Indianapolis. “We get on the road (11-25), we’re a lottery team.”
If the No. 6 Pacers are able to hold on – they’re 2.5 games ahead of No. 9 Detroit, and a game behind No. 5 Atlanta – then they’ll need to win at least once on the road against a superior playoff opponent. In George, however, they have a potential equalizer who has spent this season adapting to the greatest demands of his seven-year career.
“Usually I’ve had two jobs: be the best defender and the best scorer,” George said of those years when Indiana was contending for the NBA Finals. “Now it’s be the leader, be the toughness guy, be the enforcer. It’s just a lot of roles that I’ve had to pick up this season. That’s what’s been the toll. I’ve grown with it, I’ve gotten better throughout the season. But it’s been a test.”
George, a 6-9 small forward, is averaging 22.3 points while leading the NBA in free-throw shooting (91.4 percent). He is a four-time All-Star who is still only 26 years old. He has made three All-Defensive teams and three All-NBA teams – so who’s to say that he won’t be able to steal a game or two on the road in the upcoming playoffs, and convert this disappointing year into a success?
“We thought we’d be able to turn the corner with the talent we have,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case. But it’s a long season. Like we say, it's 0-0 once the playoffs start. We continue on, we fight our way into the playoffs, and it’s a new season for us. It’s a new season for everybody.”
Coach Nate McMillan will continue to urge his Pacers to take responsibility, to not count on George to bail them out. But if George is able to spin off a couple of 40-point games, then McMillan won’t complain.
“Any means necessary,” said McMillan, smiling. “It’s like what you would say about Michael (Jordan) and guys like that - the bigger the game, they just found ways to raise their level of play. Whether they were seeing double or triple-teams, that didn’t stop them.”
"I’ve been No. 1 in the East. I’ve been in the conference finals (twice) and I’ve been deep in the playoffs. I know how to close the season out and how to go into the playoffs.”
“It’s just constantly trying to push one another, constantly trying to push these guys,” said George. “I’ve been No. 1 in the East. I’ve been in the conference finals (twice) and I’ve been deep in the playoffs. I know how to close the season out and how to go into the playoffs.”
The teammates who were helping him as recently as three seasons ago are all gone now. George is the last of those contending Pacers. His only teammate with similar experience is point guard Jeff Teague, who reached the 2015 conference finals with the 60-win Hawks.
“Jeff has been in playoff battles recently,” said George. “Me and him, we have to kind of shoulder that down the stretch.”
On Wednesday night here, George and Teague endured a 109-100 loss to the No. 2 Celtics that fulfilled the themes of this season. It felt to George very much like a playoff game – in part because these two teams may very well meet in the first round. But it was a familiar story. George scored 37 points in 42 minutes, Teague added 25, and no other Pacer contributed more than 8. The Celtics, who swept their three-game season series with Indiana, played to a constructive flow that reminded George of better days.
“You look at their roster – everybody knows what to expect out of one another,” George said of the Celtics. “There’s never a moment where a guy is like, `What kind of shot are you taking?’ or 'What are you doing?’ They’re past that, they’re beyond that. That’s the chemistry we’re trying to make, to where guys are comfortable with their style, we know what they’re going to do, and they’re doing everything within the offense.
“But I thought tonight - granted a couple plays, and maybe a good 10 minutes we could have swung a little bit more effort - it was a very winnable game. I saw fight in us tonight that we haven’t seen on the road in awhile.”
Of course, the Boston fans had seized on Indiana’s vulnerability by greeting George with applause, which made him laugh afterward.
“I guess they were in on the rumors,” he said.
They knew that their Celtics had spent the days leading up to the trade deadline in February trying to convince Pacers president Larry Bird to send George to Boston. George will be a free agent in 2018, amid abundant speculation that he has interest in returning home to Los Angeles as a Laker. But he has continued to insist that he may yet re-sign with Indiana.
“If we have a great team here, why not?” George said after he had played the entire second half of the loss to the Celtics.
And if the Pacers haven’t assembled a great team around him?
“Then we’ll talk,” said George, as he sat with his feet in a bucket of ice water. “Me and the front office, we’ll talk.”
For the Pacers to be great, said one of the reporters surrounding his locker, George will have to remain with the team.
“True,” George said, after he had thought it through.
In the meantime there is this imminent opportunity before him. He can feel the pressure of the playoffs building in his stomach already. “I don’t care if we play Cleveland, Toronto, Boston,” George said. “I just love playoff basketball.”
He will be the underdog. He will be expected to play his level best and to bring out the unfulfilled potential in his teammates. He is going to be up against it and yet George was looking forward to his anxiety. He wants to feel the discomfort and nervousness of the playoffs, which, as he understands it, is not the goal for most people in the everyday working world.
“At the end of the day, people enjoy being comfortable,” George said. “But that’s not what life is about.”
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