By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Paul George generated headlines and criticism when he spoke recently about his desire to be mentored by LeBron James.
At this point, George and the Indiana Pacers might settle for not being schooled by him.
With the Miami Heat in town tonight (8 ET, ESPN) for the third of the teams’ four meetings in 2013-14 — they’ve split the first two and clash again on April 11 in south Florida — the Pacers are struggling with some Xs & Os issues. They could stand a little R&R and while they’re at it, a few Z’s, too. But right now, it is George’s DNA that is getting much of the attention, as he tries to finish strong a season unlike any other he has experienced.
Through his first three years, the Pacers’ rapidly developing wing player faced minimal individual pressure. From something of a sleeper as the No. 10 pick in the 2010 Draft, the 6-foot-8 Scottie Pippen-playalike blossomed from helpful rookie to rotation player to starter to All-Star. His production and his minutes went up, up, up — from 7.8 ppg to 17.4, from 20.7 mpg to 37.6 — always staying a few steps ahead of expectations. The Pacers made the playoffs every year and, kind of like George, went a step further each time.
George’s game has taken another step again — he started for the East in the All-Star Game in New Orleans and he was a regular in MVP conversations through the season’s first four months. But the expectations have caught up to him lately and so, it seems, have the defensive game plans.
Like the Heat, the Pacers have lost seven of their last 12 games. Unlike the Heat, the Pacers don’t have two rings or nearly the established track record for pulling out of a nosedive. Especially since Indiana is the one that staked out a wire-to-wire run for the East’s No. 1 seed that has gone vulnerable at what could be the worst possible time.
Their rivals know it, the Pacers know it. One of those crews is grasping to fix it.
“We’ve got to do a better job of playing with energy,” George said after Indiana’s loss in Chicago on Monday. “We’ve just been dead, it seems like on the court lately. That’s not us. That’s not us.”
After the Pacers’ practice Tuesday, he added: “We just haven’t been having fun. We’re making the game much harder than it needs to be. Somewhere along the line we forgot how much fun this game can be. … We went through a streak of games where we were just getting by because we were the more talented team. Where now we have to play good basketball to get wins.”
It’s probably not a stretch to hear “I” each time George says “we.” Sure, the Pacers’ offense is the primary problem, but he has been so instrumental in it that the overlap is vast.
George is carrying a big load in Indiana’s attack — 21.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.5 apg — and with what’s been going on, has tried to shoulder more. It looks like pressing: He’s shooting 36.6 percent over his last 13 games –including 19 of 71 from 3-point range — and has had five games of 13 points or fewer (including nights of 2 and 8).
When he has shot less than 42 percent in this stretch, the Pacers are 3-6. He has had off-the-court distractions too – a paternity case from a woman in Florida, some photo-texting claim that broke over the weekend that he termed “a fake” — that surely have not helped.
Asked Monday if he has seen Indiana players try to do too much through the team’s slump, George said: “We have it at times. You’re going to need it sometimes. We choose the wrong moments.”
Asked if he’s been one of those guys, he said: “At times. I’m not going to say I’m not one of ’em. I only have good intentions to get something going for us offensively and just be aggressive.
“Our execution isn’t where we want it to be. We’re nowhere where we want to be as far as screening. Setting guys up. Moving with energy, playing with some energy. And cutting without the ball. You know, everything has just been so lackadaisical. That’s going to get you beat. We’re putting too much pressure on ourselves to score against great defense in the halfcourt.”
There is no break coming Wednesday night, not with the way Miami traps the ball out top and, if all else fails, can ask James to throw a bruising defensive blanket over Indiana’s best player.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged after the loss in Chicago that he has talked with George about not overburdening himself, forcing matters, or taking personally too much of the team’s struggle.
“All the time,” Vogel said. “He’s learning. He’s growing. I don’t want to share the details, but it’s a grind. It’s a grind right now. He’s just got to work his way through it.”
George is, after all, still 23. When Michael Jordan was George’s age, he had played in seven playoff games total. OK, Kobe had two rings at 23, but he also had Shaquille O’Neal. It took James — another high schooler with a head start — until his fourth season to reach The Finals and his sixth to win an MVP. Everyone’s into the hurry-up, but George has been doing fine.
These are teachable moments, this game, the next one against Miami and these next three weeks. Everything George and the Pacers want to achieve still is right there for them.
“I really wish I could tell you [the “book” on stopping George],” Chicago’s Taj Gibson said after George’s 8-of-22 shooting Monday. “Paul, over the years, hass added so many different things to his arsenal. The best thing you can try to do is play with a lot of energy and try to contest every shot. That’s the most I can tell you — every time he shot the ball, we tried to do a hard contest. Hand in his face, like Kobe kind of. You’ve just got to try to frustrate him any way you can.”
Lately, George has been starting halfway there, a situation he and the Pacers will try to remedy Wednesday.