CHICAGO – If Paul George has heard the comparisons once, he’s heard them 1,000 times. From before he was drafted by the Indiana Pacers with the No. 10 pick out of Cal State-Fresno in the 2010 Draft and ever since. Heck, he’s even heard it right here.
Likened to the Hall of Famer for his build and wingspan, for his wing position, for his potential on both ends of the court and for his place in the Pacers’ pecking order as more sidekick than franchise guy, George occasionally has played up to the comparison. Other times, he has played well below it.
Then there was Tuesday, when he played smack in front of it. Pippen, who has one of those “ambassador” jobs with the Chicago Bulls, was planted courtside about 15 feet from the Indiana bench for the Pacers’ 80-76 victory. He has watched George up-close-and-personal before, but rarely seen him as terrific as he was at United Center: 34 points, nine rebounds and three steals, shooting 14-of-25 on a night when his teammates combined for 15-of-55.
So, was there a little something extra in his performance because of the Pippen proximity?
“I wasn’t playing for Pippen or trying to put on a show for Pippen,” George said afterward. “I mean, I’ve got a lot of respect for him. During the game, I gave him a fist pound.”
Look, it can only go so far. One’s a Bulls legend, the other is a Pacers’ budding star. There’s bad blood between the teams, borne of their rivalry in the Central Division and all those Michael Jordan-Reggie Miller battles.
“Pippen … we don’t have a great relationship,” George said. “But every time we come to Chicago and play, I do acknowledge him.”
George was the guy getting the hat-tips Tuesday. He carried Indiana for much of the game. And he bounced back dramatically from his play in his three most recent games, a West Coast swing on which he shot 7-of-31, with outings of four points (2-of-11 at Sacramento) and none (0-of-7 at Golden State).
It was a pattern similar to George’s recovery two weeks ago, when he backed up a six-point night at Washington with 37 points against New Orleans 48 hours later. And it’s all part of the development process.
A few nights earlier, Philadelphia’s Doug Collins talked in a UC hallway about the importance of an NBA player’s third season. He spoke specifically of his own guy Evan Turner. But the same applies to George.
“Third year is when the game starts to get a little more comfortable,” George said in agreement. “You start to pick up the game’s speed, where shots are going to be available, the flow of the game. You start to come into your own within the offense. I don’t want to just say I’m doing so now because I had a good game. I’m still going through that process.”
Said coach Frank Vogel: “With any growth, there’s growing pains. He’s had some tougher performances this year, but some spectacular ones as well.”
Consistency is key, with George and the Pacers facing Portland Wednesday night in Indianapolis on the tail end of the back-to-back. So is diligence – which George showed when he went directly from Indiana’s flight from Oakland, which landed at 7 a.m. Eastern time, to the team’s practice court.
He hoisted half-a-thousand shots. To make sure the bad was gone and the good was within reach again.
“The way I shot the ball against Sacramento and Golden State, it really brought me down,” George said. “I let the team down. I knew that wasn’t me. I had to get back to what got me here. I had to get in the gym, put up 500 shots. From floaters to mid-range to 3-pointers, I mixed it all up. That’s something I need to keep doing.”
He did plenty of that against the Bulls. Right in front of … aw, you know.