Last season was a rough one for the Indiana Pacers, as they finished 38-44 and missed the playoffs, bringing an end to four straight postseason appearances. But this was understandable given that Indiana was missing one key piece: Paul George.
The smooth, 6’9″ forward missed almost all of the 2014-15 season with a lower-right leg injury, and many wondered if he’d be the same this year. Well, we’re only 9 games into the 2015-16 NBA season, but George definitely looks to be his old self since he’s singlehandedly keeping the Pacers in the Eastern Conference race.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in a recent game against the Boston Celtics, which George took over in the second half. He scored several times early in the third quarter to help Indiana take the lead. Then, with the game on the line, George used his size to shoot over 6’4″ Marcus Smart, who’s one of the league’s best on-the-ball-defenders. The end result was a 102-91 victory for Indiana in what was a pretty close game until midway through the fourth quarter.
“It’s my job to go out there and perform,” said George, who scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. “I take a lot of pride in being our leader. I take pride in the outcome of games. I’m going to bring it, night in and night out. I’m going to be the guy that’s always going to bring it.”
Indiana is very much a team in transition, as they got rid of 7’2″ center Roy Hibbert and locker-room-leader David West over the offseason. They also signed Monta Ellis and spaced out their offense to allow their smaller lineup more driving opportunities. And it’s pretty clear that having a special player like George makes this transition much easier to make.
“We believe we’re putting him in position to have the best season of his career,” said Indiana head coach Frank Vogel. “Playing with a little more space, a little more tempo, we think offensively is going to help him explode onto the scene and take his game to an even higher level, while still having the flexibility to play with bigger lineups when we need to.”
The numbers say everything so far, with George averaging 23.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG and 4.7 APG – all of which would be career highs if he keeps this up. And what’s interesting is that the 25-year-old still thinks he has some room to grow this season.
“My skillset, everything on the court has been there,” George explained. “I feel like with a year away from the game I was able to rehab and really focus on myself. I’m still trying to gain that little bit back physically. I’m not all the way there. Leg endurance, the foot speed, the explosiveness. That’s the little bit that has to come back.”
Despite George’s excellent season and Indiana’s relevance in the East so far, there is still work to be done. Right now their spread offense only amounts to 95.3 PPG, which ranks 27th in the league. And while much of this can be attributed to the fact that the Pacers’ identity is that of a half-court defensive team, George knows that improvement must be made.
“Still trying to figure this thing out,” he said. “Still trying to figure out floor spacing. Where I can get shots, where I can get aggressive, where I can be a playmaker. There’s still so much to unravel.”
The Pacers haven’t gotten many breaks in their schedule so far, taking on the likes of Toronto, Memphis, Utah, Detroit, Miami and Cleveland in the early going. But Indiana has a chance to shoot up the standings a little since four out of their next seven opponents have losing records. And even when the Pacers play the tougher teams, George gives them a chance to win on any given night.