Paul George on Returning to Indiana

Dec. 13, 2017 - Thunder forward Paul George shares his feelings on returning to Indiana, where he spent his first seven NBA seasons, for the first time as a visitor.

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Paul George on Returning to Indiana

Dec. 13, 2017 - Thunder forward Paul George shares his feelings on returning to Indiana, where he spent his first seven NBA seasons, for the first time as a visitor.
Dec 13, 2017  |  05:04

George's Return "Just Another Game" for Pacers

Dec. 12, 2017 - The Pacers discuss Wednesday's game against Oklahoma City when Paul George, traded to the Thunder this summer, will return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the first time.
Dec 12, 2017  |  03:10

George's Return Brings Mix of Emotions

by Mark Montieth Writer

The answers were as inevitable as the questions, and revealed nothing, really. Nothing but the truth, anyway.

An unusually large media contingent gathered following the Pacers practice at St. Vincent Center Tuesday, and requested to talk with Domantas Sabonis, Thaddeus Young, Lance Stephenson, Victor Oladipo and coach Nate McMillan. Each one of them was asked about Paul George's return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Wednesday's game against Oklahoma City, and each one of them gave essentially the same answer.

"Just another game," Sabonis said. "Just a lot of extra media."

"Just another game," Young said. "We'll go about it the same way we do any game."

"Just another game we've got to win," Stephenson said.

"It's another game for us," Oladipo said. "Obviously, you guys and the fans will blow it up, which is fine, but we have to go out there and play Pacer basketball and execute and defend homecourt.

"We know there's a lot of hype to this game, but it is another game for us," McMillan said. "The focus is defending homecourt."

So, there you have it. Good night, everybody!

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Only it's not that simple. George's return is certain to inspire a variety of emotions from Pacers' fans, most of them negative, which should make for an interesting and rare atmosphere in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

George played seven seasons for the Pacers, nurtured from a 20-year-old first-round draft pick who averaged 7.8 points as a rookie to a four-time All-Star (who scored 41 points in one of the games) and an Olympic gold medalist. He averaged more than 20 points in his final three healthy seasons with the franchise, was both a first- and second-team all-defensive player, became one of just two NBA Pacers to have a triple-double in a playoff game and, contrary to his current image, hit several memorable shots. And don't forget the impressive comeback from a horrifically and severely broken leg that threatened his career in the summer of 2014.

All in all, he was on track to become one of the greatest Pacers of all time, and a virtual shoo-in for having his number retired to The Fieldhouse rafters.

But then he left. After saying all the right things last summer about wanting to stay and be part of a contending team again, his Los Angeles-based agent, Aaron Mintz, called newly-hired president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard to say George would not re-sign with the Pacers when his option became available after the 2017-18 season. Pritchard called it a "gut-punch," and was forced to make a hurried trade.

News of George's trade to OKC was first reported by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne on Friday, June 30, 2017, sending shockwaves across the NBA (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

That hurried trade, however, has worked out incredibly well for the Pacers. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the two players acquired in the deal that sent George to OKC, are performing beyond expectations. So are the Pacers. Their 16-11 record is one of the biggest surprises of the young NBA season, although no more surprising than Oklahoma City's 12-14 record. Thunder management swung for the fences by trading for George and Carmelo Anthony to join last season's league Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook, but the chemistry with their "Big Three" has to this point caused an implosion rather than an explosion.

Few Pacers in the franchise's NBA history have requested trades, and only the one Ron Artest made in 2005 rivals the impact of the one made on George's behalf. For the Pacers to have benefited from the deal and the Thunder to be suffering for it creates the best of all scenarios for those Pacers fans who felt betrayed by George's exit.

Oladipo has single-handedly outperformed George this season, making Sabonis' contributions seem like a wonderful bonus. Oladipo scored a career-high 47 points in Sunday's victory over Denver to raise his scoring average to 24.5. He's hitting 48 percent of his field goals, 44 percent of his 3-pointers and 77 percent of his foul shots. George averages 20.6 points while shooting 42 percent from the field, 41 percent from the 3-point line and 82 percent from the foul line. George averages slightly more rebounds because he's five inches taller, Oladipo averages slightly more assists and turnovers because he has the ball in his hands more than George.

Sabonis, playing mostly off the bench, has become the player the Thunder probably hoped they were getting with the 11th pick in the 2016 draft. He's averaging 12.1 points on 54 percent shooting and a team-best 8.5 rebounds in just 24 ½ minutes per game. He's also hit 5-of-11 3-pointers, and become a fan favorite for his face-bruising style of play.

Essentially, the only people feeling anger over the trade at this point are some Pacers fans, and their emotion has been tempered by the team’s improved brand of play and record. Oladipo and Sabonis were in Oklahoma City just one season. They didn’t establish strong ties to the community, have no bitterness over being dealt and appreciate their enhanced opportunity with the Pacers. Only five current Pacers played with George last season, and they have no hard feelings over his departure. They liked him just fine, and things are going too well for that. George presumably got what he wanted, and hasn’t expressed regrets. Most people assume he’s merely in the process of changing flights anyway, ultimately bound for Los Angeles, near where he grew up.

Stephenson is the only Pacers player who can relate to what George will experience on Wednesday. He had an opportunity to re-sign with the Pacers in 2014, but his agent declined their offer and accepted one from Charlotte. Stephenson came back to The Fieldhouse in November of the following season with the Hornets, and was greeted with some boos, but mostly with cheers. He finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as the Pacers won on Solomon Hill's offensive rebound at the buzzer.

Paul George greets Lance Stephenson during Stephenson's first game back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse after signing with the Hornets in 2014.(Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

"Actually, I was nervous," Stephenson said Tuesday. "I loved the crowd so much in Indiana, I was nervous coming out."

Stephenson, though, had not asked for a trade, and some fans understood the decision to reject the Pacers' offer had been made for him rather than by him.

Stephenson, a close friend of George, said he expects an even mix of cheers and boos in The Fieldhouse on Wednesday. "He did so much for Indiana," Stephenson said.

So did George's agent, although it might not have seemed like it in the heat of last summer. Mintz could have directed George to play out this season with the Pacers and then reject the option on the final year of his contract and become a free agent – such as what Gordon Hayward did last summer, when he left Utah for Boston, leaving the Jazz without compensation for their premier player.

Given what the Pacers got in return for George, and given how well things have gone for them since, the most appropriate response for Pacers fans when George is introduced on Wednesday should be obvious:

Thank you.

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