Following a career-high 43 points in last night's loss in Portland, everyone is talking about Paul George today. He's played at an MVP level through the first month of the season, and even after last night's setback, the Pacers own the league's best record. The secret is out about Paul George, and it has been for awhile.
It all started about a year ago.
On December 1, 2012, George was held scoreless (0-7 FG, 0-5 3-pt FG) in a loss at Golden State which dropped the Pacers to 8-9.
He was in his third NBA season, and with Danny Granger’s surprise knee injury, Indiana was expecting the former 10th overall pick to step up to fill the void. He was coming off a tough series in the 2012 playoffs against the Heat where he was largely a non-factor, averaging just ten points and shooting 36% from the field in the six-game defeat. Hoping to start fresh following that poor showing, George was hit-and-miss in the first month of the 2012-13 season. He showed glimpses, like a 37-point effort against New Orleans during Thanksgiving week, but he missed 32 of his next 45 shots over the following four games, including the doughnut at Golden State. The heightened expectations had George pressing, and it showed. Exactly one year ago today, I remember broaching the topic on our show as to whether Paul George was ever going to be a franchise player, or if he was just another guy.
Again, that was just one year ago.
Mike Wells, then of the Indianapolis Star, reported that George went straight to the gym after the red-eye flight back from his zero-point effort in Oakland and went to work. Since that fateful night at the Oracle (fitting, no?) Arena, George has made a dizzying ascent from a youngster still learning his way to one of the NBA’s best all-around players.
George was 143 games into his NBA career when the Pacers’ plane landed early that morning in Indianapolis. His numbers at that point were middling - 10.5 ppg (43% FG), 4.9 rpg, 1.2 apg – and he still looked every bit like the long-term project he was pegged to be by nearly all of the NBA Draftniks. Sure, the talent was undoubtedly there, but could he put it together?
The turnaround after Golden State was immediate. The Pacers finished their road-trip in nearby Chicago, and on December 4th, Paul George went off. He scored nearly half of their points (34) in an 80-76 win over the Bulls which evened Indiana’s record at 9-9. They haven’t been below .500 since. George averaged 25 points per game (51% shooting) in the six games immediately after his no-show at Golden State. Behind his surge, the Pacers won 9 of their next 12, and 14 of their next 19 overall. In the return game against the Warriors at the end of February (remember the overblown, so-called “brawl”?), George went for 21 points and 11 rebounds in a 108-97 win. It concluded a 24-12 stretch for the Pacers, who went on to earn the East’s #3 seed. PG made up for his 2012 struggles in last year’s postseason, averaging 19.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists to put the Pacers a game away from the NBA Finals. He also earned All-Defensive Team honors, and continues to be one of the best stoppers in the league.
George's numbers in the last year tell the story:
|GS & Before||144||9.5||43%||4.9||1.2||80-64|
It’s rare when we can pinpoint the exact moment that the switch flipped for a star player, but it all goes back to that night in Golden State for George, exactly one year ago. In early December of 2012, Paul George was a project, and the Pacers were mediocre. 366 days later, Paul George is elite, an MVP front-runner, and the Pacers are a legitimate title contender.
What a difference a year makes.
Roy Hibbert is upset.
The big man tweeted this yesterday after the Pacers big road win in L.A.:
No disrespect but come on. We slip past them? Click the link n my boys get no highlights. Dunks r nice wins r better pic.twitter.com/rDX5knwlj5— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) December 2, 2013
He's right. The Pacers led for most of that game by 8-12 points. They held off a late Clippers' rally, but only trailed twice the entire afternoon. They won, and were the better team for about 42 of the 48 minutes.
All of that said, I couldn’t possibly care less about what ESPN says about the Pacers.
The Pacers are off to a 16-1 start. They just kicked off a five-game road swing by handing the preseason Western Conference #2 favorite (according to Vegas) their second home loss of the year. They lead the league in the two biggest defensive categories (points allowed and opponent FG%) by a huge margin. Indiana isn't some plucky upstart hoping to get to 50 wins and the Conference Semifinals. They're a legitimate NBA Title contender. They’ve officially graduated from caring about what their perception is nationally.
Despite winning four championships and reaching five NBA Finals in the last fifteen years, the Spurs have lived off of the national radar. You think Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich care about the exposure they get on ESPN? No. It’s not about that for them. They have a goal, and it isn’t getting “national love” – it’s winning championships. That’s what winning teams care about.
If the Pacers want to be flashy and get their highlights on SportsCenter, they can trade places with the Clippers, who burn out in the First Round of the playoffs every year. Would Indiana prefer to be the Knicks? I see them on SportsCenter all the time. They’ve lost nine straight and are in last place in the NBA’s worst division. It’s a shame the Pacers aren’t talked about as much as the Lakers, who are a sinking ship, led by an aging, overpaid, and injured Kobe Bryant and a roster of cast-offs. Man, I wish the Blue and Gold could trade places with those guys!
I like that Hibbert gets fired up, and that the team plays with a chip on their shoulder. Terrific. But, the days of sweating the small stuff are over. If the Pacers and their fans regard themselves a championship-level team, it's time for them to focus solely on that goal rather than worrying about what the folks in Bristol think.