Once upon a time, the Indiana Pacers were the home of an unequivocal MVP candidate. No, don’t think too far back. We’re not reminiscing on the 8 points, 9 seconds days that featured a top-two shooter in NBA history.
All you truly have to do is turn back the calendar to January, flip through some League Pass archives, and listen to media attention Paul George received after January 18.
Flattening the Los Angeles Clippers on that Saturday night for 36 points — with just one turnover — George solidified his place at third on the 2013-14 Most Valuable Player leaderboard, and many could make a convincing argument that he should be even higher. Of course, George’s 43 points in an overtime loss at Portland was a performance we still remember, but his efficiency vs. Los Angeles (12-of-17 from the field and 5-of-6 from deep) marked his most impressive game of the season.
Yet, that feels as if it came in a completely different season.
Since that night (29 games ago), George has shot 197-of-494 from the field — a frightful 39.8%. That number would be barely tolerable for defensive specialist coming off the best. For George, it’s simply unacceptable.
The hardships George have battled with can likely be placed within two concrete categories.
There’s “Excuse A,” which states that teams have improved their level of play since the beginning of winter and improved their game plans to limit George and take away the offensive areas he excels at.
Then you have “Excuse B,” which entails the media (as a whole) over-hyping George to a level that’s become too much weight for the 23-year-old shoulders that are now trying to rediscover how easy it seemed to score just a few months ago.
Choose an option. Regardless which way your brain tells you to lean, you’re correct. We’re seeing the effect of both since George’s name became a part of the NBA’s group of elites.
Something that’s been evident since this group assembled is that they don’t — by any means — thrive on the offensive side of the ball. For a team that became just the second this season to eclipse the 50-win mark, ranking in the bottom 10 in offensive rating and points scored per game (21st in each) has left many wondering just how they keep their title hopes afloat. Their offensive execution isn’t giving any opposing team heart attacks, and proper coaching has allowed others to find ways to shut down their offensive sets for long stretches at a time. That’s been one of the only things you need to do to Indiana to have them on the ropes: Put them into a rut, and force their whining to affect their own play. It doesn’t start and end with Paul George, but he’s supposed to be the guy that improvises and steps up to be that superstar leader.
As far as George being prematurely assigned the MVP label, there’s something that needs to be understood.
The talents in today’s game that are asked to lead a team to a championship in the midst of putting up MVP performances are limited to a selective group. That group, to my estimation, only consists of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose (healthy) and Dirk Nowitzki. Houston Rockets’ fans may try to hunt me down, but James Harden has to first prove he can lead a team to a series win without falling flat on his face in the playoffs. Of that list of seven players, the average tenure in the league is 10.8 years, with the youngest of the group (Rose) having logged 3.5 years.
Too many expectations were thrown at George, who is just finishing his fourth year in the Association. Combine that with the fact that Danny Granger was still Indiana’s go-to guy during his first two seasons (averaging over 18 points per game both years), and this has been George’s first real taste of being in the driver’s seat of a team expected to play June basketball. It shouldn’t be any type of shock to see the two-time All-Star struggle to find his way and make ill-advised decisions against defenses — especially ones solely focused on giving him a rough time. The thud of George’s game hitting a brick wall should be one of the many lessons people learn about early-season overreactions and overhyping budding stars.
In his latest adventure, George chose Phil Jackson appreciation night to come up smaller than New York’s chances at making the playoffs.
George began the game out of rhythm, after saying pre-game that the meeting against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden was “a game we got to bring it — they’re playing good basketball.” After a rough shooting night in each of his last two games, George nearly came up empty in Wednesday’s first half. He scored just 3 points on 1-of-8 field shooting before heading into halftime, and the body language didn’t depict great signs for the rest of the night.
Credit should be given to New York for its defensive strategies, as the Knicks players cut off the interior to prevent anything easy and took the Pacers out of a mode they strive to reach: team basketball.
After the game, George lauded New York while criticizing Indiana, according to the Indianapolis Star.
“[The Knicks] just take you out of stuff, and we haven’t grown our I.Q. as a team into improvising when teams try to throw in little wrenches into our offense, and that’s where we got to grow offensively”
Recording only two assists in the first half, the Pacers could never capitalize on the plays in which they did move the ball smoothly. Settling for jump shots, which they did a vast majority of the first half, allowed the Pacers to satisfy New York and eventually trail by as many as 16 points.
George, missing his first seven shots, could’ve been considered the main culprit of settling for jumpers, as he couldn’t drop a penny in the ocean with his touch in the first 24 minutes. The shot selection wasn’t all that profound, neither.
In George’s second attempt from the field (shown in the clip above), he flares to the perimeter to receive the ball from David West, fighting through Carmelo Anthony in the process. His primary defender on the play, Iman Shumpert, has a bit of a defensive lapse and loses track of his assignment, long enough for George to get free. Upon receiving the pass two feet behind the 3-point line, George is open for a split second, clearly enough time to get off a look in rhythm.
The issue many have with this: It comes off as a “settle,” or a play in which George was pressing his individual offense, trying to get himself sparked with the long ball. Take a look at the shot clock situation, and the rest of the Pacers’ members on the court.
A handful of basketball pundits might argue that a relatively open look, in perfect rhythm, is a good attempt to open a game. They wouldn’t be wrong. However, when your team is noted to be one that has to almost give their blood to keep up with some of the higher scoring teams around the league, establishing an interior game is mighty important in the NBA. Not only does attacking the paint put potential pressure on the New York bigs (as Amar’e Stoudemire looked to be in early foul trouble), but it opens up the perimeter for later stretches in the game. With 12 seconds still remaining on the shot clock, operating to find a better shot is definitely on my agenda (though I might be in the minority). Especially when you take into account that both teams were horrid offensively, why chuck up 25 footers? Indiana often does show terrific patience on offense without getting into shot-clock violation trouble (see February 7 vs. Portland for evidence), but rushing the gun just to get an individual going played a large part in the 92-86 loss.
Some of George’s head-scratching plays were more blatant than others, but most spelled out “George the gun.”
Beginning the possession up the court, it’s all George. A series of crossover dribbling — and more, more dribbling — leads George into using a screen set by West. Coming off the screen, Indiana’s $90 million guy forces a fadeaway jumper over Cole Aldrich. The results aren’t attractive, as the ball hit nothing but the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. Evan Turner, Ian Mahinmi, and George Hill barely even move on the play, knowing it was going up off the screen. If the Pacers want to know one of the biggest factors in their first half deficit, West was correct when he told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star: “Just not playing team ball. There’s no other way slice it.”
The ones questioning ball movement and lack of togetherness on offense should remember this performance. Not one pass was made on the possession. There comes a point when you wonder how West will step up towards his teammates — outside of brief comments to media — to address the newfound love Indiana has with jumpers and the occasional selfishness.
Wednesday just wasn’t a quality night for George, physically or mentally. The stroke, even on his squared-up attempts from long range, wasn’t on target, and his mind strayed far away from the principles that helped Indiana succeed all season. In the third quarter, frustration reached a higher extent, as George couldn’t capitalize on his 3 shots in the period, including a layup at rim after getting a quick burst to the paint and attacking Stoudemire, who backed away from a potential foul call.
To his credit, he acknowledged his terrible play, again from the Indy Star.
“Top 5, one of my worst shooting nights,” George stated after the loss. “I’ve gotta do a better job of making sure I’m ready to go and finish plays for us.”
He concluded the night with a 4-of-17 showing, including 2-of-9 from 3-point range, and 4 turnovers. It didn’t seem as horrid when George finished with 17 points, but 7 of them were results from trips to the free-throw line. That’s the George that you love to watch: one that attacks with ferocity, looking to make you pay in the interior. Whether it’s getting to the line, drawing the defense, finishing a bucket, or dunking on birdmen, getting to the paint should never go into the back pocket of an NBA superstar.
Especially one that could be marching this team to the Finals against a Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers. They’ve been around the block for a ride or two, so the time has ran out on selfish, pressing basketball.
Next on the Pacer radar comes two of the top three defenses in the NBA, Chicago and Memphis. These two teams should be perfect evaluators for Indiana’s adjustments — if they finally decide to make any.