LeBron James is the best perimeter defender in the game. Tony Allen is probably the second best. After that you’d be hard pressed to find one better than Paul George. And he’s only in his third season.
He’s also only going to get better. Despite only being named to the All-Defensive Second Team, and not the First Team, George will use it as motivation for next year. “It feels good,” said George. “I take a lot of pride in my defense and playing defense. So that recognition, it’ll make me work to make First Team next year.”
He’s gained a lot of attention through three games against the Knicks for his rugged defense on Carmelo. Outside of a 9- to 10-minute period from the end of the third quarter to the beginning of the fourth in Game 2 (in which Melo scored 15 points), Paul has shut down Melo’ as much as anyone can in this league.
During the regular season, Carmelo shot the ball at a 44.9% clip. In this series against Indiana, he has shot 29-for-70 (41.4%). When he has been guarded by Paul George, via ESPN Stats & Info, Anthony’s percentage drops even further: shot 14-for-41 (34.2%). Also via ESPN Stats & Info, in Game 1, J.R. Smith and Carmelo were a combined 5-for-25 (20%) when Paul George was the primary defender.
There’s no equivalent to a shutdown corner in the NBA, but so far against the Knicks, that’s more or less what Paul George has been.
He’s making it tough for Carmelo to get a clean catch let alone get off a clean shot. He’s been using his length to disrupt entry passes, jab at the ball during dribble penetration and simply get in Carmelo’s air space as much as possible. Despite the size mismatch, Paul George has limited Carmelo’s ability to score on post ups. He’s been doing this by getting work done before Anthony ever gets the ball. He denies deep position, makes it tough to catch the pass and when Melo finally gets the ball there’s hardly enough time left on the shot clock, which forces him to shoot up well-contested shots.
“The ball in Carmelo’s hands in any situation is not a good proposition for us,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel yesterday at practice. The solution becomes obvious: Keep the ball away from him as much as possible.
More and more teams in the NBA are buying into Tom Thibodeau’s “Swarm the Strong Side” defensive scheme. Those teams bring help defense when the ball handler is in the post or in iso situations. It’s becoming less and less common to find players who can guard one on one at an elite level. One of the main reasons that the Knicks only got off 11 three-point attempts in Game 3 was due to the fact that Paul George can defend Carmelo by himself, which means that his teammates don’t need to leave their matchups to help on Carmelo. When asked how unique it is to have a 23-year-old wing defender who can match up one-on-one with Anthony, Vogel said that “it’s incredible. It’s incredible.”
In addition to his suffocating defense on Carmelo he’s been able to use his long arms to play the passing lanes tremendously well. His length allows him to go for steals and still be able to recover to his man in time.
“Crafty” isn’t normally a word one would use to describe a player’s defense. However that’s the exact word I would use to explain the ways Paul George has made up for the size mismatch to defend Carmelo.
In this vido clip, George fights for position before Carmelo gets the ball, allowing him to receive an entry pass only after Iman Shumpert swings the ball to Tyson Chandler and then gets the ball back to the wing while Anthony gets better position. There are only eight seconds left on the shot clock when Melo gets the ball. Then while Carmelo is backing him down, Paul is able to poke the ball loose forcing Melo to throw up a shot with the clock winding down, which he contests extremely well.
Offensive players are usually the ones who dictate the flow. Whether it’s from the triple-threat position, post up or simply off the dribble, the ball handler is always trying to keep the defender on his heels. What’s amazed me about Paul’s defense is how he is able to dictate the flow. He does this by trying to never let Carmelo get comfortable.
“All I do is just try to make everything tough for him, make him shoot over me, just make it uncomfortable for him.” said Paul George at practice. “Whether he’s on the perimeter, he’s iso’ing, bringing the ball up, posting up, everything is: make sure it’s tough and over me.”
In this clip, where George is covering J.R. Smith in the left corner, Paul gets right up on Smith and forces him to make his move. J.R. would probably like to have a little space to work, and when a defender gets up that close to you, it completely disrupts your rhythm. Smith ends up driving towards the basket, spinning baseline, pump faking and then throwing up a prayer as the shot clock nears zero. Paul falls neither for the spin nor the fake, stays disciplined, doesn’t draw a foul and is still able to contest the shot.
Here, Paul George denies Anthony ideal postion, first by deterring the entry then by pushing him out just a few feet further from the block than Carmelo wants to be. After the catch, Melo then has to make a move to get in for a closer shot, and despite Carmelo attempting to keep the George away from the ball, Paul was able to reach in and poke it loose with his long arms.
The Knicks try a little off-ball screen in an attempt for Melo to catch the ball while driving to the basket. Once again, Paul makes it near impossible to get a clean catch and look. (It didn’t help that Ray Felton throws an inaccurate pass behind a curling Carmelo.)
In the second half, the Knicks try almost the exact same play as in the previous clip. Jason Kidd throws a better pass, but George is still — somehow — able to get over a Chandler screen, stay attached to Carmelo, see the pass and reach through to force the turnover. How he even locates the ball, let alone deflects it by reaching under Anthony’s arm, is remarkable. Sometimes, with the improbable deflections he gets, it seems like Paul George is the only player on the court who is allowed to play with a lacrosse stick.
I’m always in awe when a player struggles offensively but still locks down on his defensive matchup. Despite Paul’s horrific shooting night in Game 3 (2-for-12 from downtown), he consistently disrupted Carmelo’s rhythm.
And as important as this has been in terms of slowing down Anthony, it is also critical to Indiana’s entire defensive strategy. Since George can hang with Anthony one on one, it limits the amount of help that other players have to give, and those other defenders can stay home on New York’s shooters.
“How we guard the three is predicated on trying not to double team as much as possible,” said Vogel. “There are times against a Carmelo Anthony where you have to.”
That’s the fear.
Vogel realizes that guarding Melo with one defender, even a Paul George-level defender, may not always be possible. If Anthony starts to go on one of his torrid scoring stretches, the Pacers may have to send another defender at him. That will spell double trouble as Melo’s box score lights up and his teammates find themselves more open than they have been throughout the series.
“We may have to double,” said Vogel, “because he hasn’t really gone off in those one-on-one situations yet, but we know he is very capable.”
Until then, the Pacers’ defense should triumph.
Not sending much help defense will continue to allow the Pacers to minimize the number of open three-point looks. No open looks equals less three-point attempts and makes. And if the Knicks make less three pointers? Advantage: Pacers.