Paul George, bless his heart, hasn’t shied away the spotlight in what, for the most part, has been a second consecutive breakthrough season for him and for his Indiana Pacers team. George is sniffing rarefied air as one of the NBA’s hot young talents and rising stars, and, dare we say, superstars.
Yes, George responded when asked about that label directly. Yes, say “superstar” please.
“Nowadays you need to be a scorer to be considered an elite player in this league,” he told some reporters last week, prior to Indiana’s first game against East rival Miami. The conference’s two elites meet again Wednesday night in Miami (7 ET, ESPN).
“Defense just wasn’t doing it alone,” George said of his dramatic development. “I really wanted to be up there, I really wanted to challenge myself, and that’s the group of guys I want to be associated with.”
So “superstar” is OK?
“I think so,” he said. “Playing at the level I’ve been playing at, it won’t get nothing short of this. So I invite that.”
Well, not so fast. George’s play since he uttered those words has been noticeably short of what he’d done to that point. In the Pacers’ first 24 games, George grabbed the NBA by the throat by averaging 25.1 points on 47.8 percent shooting, including 42.3 percent from 3-point range. He averaged 5.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.6 turnovers.
But starting at tipoff of the meeting with the Heat in Indianapolis Dec. 10, when the two-time champs threw LeBron James defensively on George like a strait jacket, the Indiana wing player’s performances have dipped. In three games, George has averaged 14.7 points on 27 percent shooting. He has missed 12 of his 17 3-pointers and shot even worse from inside the arc (5 of 20). His steals are down (1.7), and though his assists are up (4.3), so are his turnovers (3.7).
Granted, it’s an extremely small sample size – one week, three games – but two of them came against Charlotte and Detroit, not exactly championship aspirants.
So what we’re seeing as George navigates the first real speed bump of his special season likely has two components: Defensive game-planning on any given night, and the cumulative effects of it all.
First, George and the Pacers realize the dynamic has shifted somewhat. When opponents prep to face them, in film sessions and walk-throughs, it’s no longer just that solid starting five that grabs their attention. It’s the transformation of Indiana into one of those name-above-the-title teams on the marquee — “Paul George and the Pacers” – that gets addressed first.
What James and Miami did against him last week, particularly in the first half (two points), has become the ideal for all Pacers foes. And the Heat just happen to have, in James, precisely the kind of player, playing in a manner George has been facing more and more this season.
“I’m getting more physical play,” he said. “A lot of guys are trying to get into me physically – and I invite ’em to. I feel like I have the ability to get around them when they try to pressure up. I just read the defense. Whatever the defense throws at me, I’m able to counter it.”
James, whose ankle sprain loomed over Wednesday’s game, is one of the few who can match George’s elusiveness while bringing superior strength.
Then there’s the workload George has carried this season. Just as the Pacers have given themselves no wiggle room on their avowed goal of best record in the East and the home-court advantage that goes with it, George hasn’t taken his foot off the gas in his own development. After that long postseason last spring, after a summer driving himself to take this next step, he has plunged into a relentless grind approaching two months now since camps opened.
His usage rate is up from 19.3 two seasons ago and 23.5 last year to 28.4. George so far has done more in tougher circumstances – he scores more and shoots better on the road and likewise has produced bigger in games Indiana eventually lost than in its victories – than on the easier nights. All those All-Star votes, Twitter followers and headlines have come at the price of energy expended and stamina drained.
The whole Pacers team has taken the whip to 2013-14 but George has been their lead rider.
“I said it earlier this year we were always that team on the outside looking in,” he said. “Now teams are preparing for us. We’ve got to come ready every night. Because we’re capable of losing – we’re not playing at the level we need to. So it is that much more of a focus, that much more energy exerted. We really have to execute offensively and still stay dominant on defense.”
Too grueling, perhaps?
“Nah,” George said. “Not at all. Not for myself, not for Roy [Hibbert], nobody in this group. We’re deep enough. Coach uses us well, he rests us well. So we’re fine.”
The tests will keep on coming. The Miami players forever will try to do against George what it did against Derrick Rose back in the day or Kevin Durant or Jeremy Lin when they seemed to take Linsanity so personally: Cut the head off that snake. How well George weathers it, individually and for his club, will determine whether that “superstar” cloak comes off the rack or fits as if custom-tailored.
“I’m always up to the challenges and going against the best players,” George said prior to Round 1 vs. the Heat. “It’s fun. So that’s how I look at it: It’ll be another step, another great matchup for me. Seems like I’ve been having a lot of those lately.”