Paul George wasn’t exactly great, offensively, against the Heat but he made a few big plays — including a resume-building dunk on LeBron — that will hopefully pull him out of his recent funk. Really he hasn’t been the same scorer for months that he was in the 2013 portion of the 2013-14 season, especially since the All-Star break.
In his last 20 games, his point-per-game average has only dropped by 1.3 points (22.2 to 20.9) but it has come with a woeful tailing off in efficiency. Before the break, he shot 43.8% from the floor compared to a sad 40.3% while his long distance shooting has fallen directly into the toilet (37.0% pre-break to 34.2% since). It’s not even just the numbers: Watching him struggle to create open shots for himself of late has told us all we need to know about how much harder it seems for the All-Star to score these days.
One encouraging area in which he has improved, however, is in getting to the line.
In March, PG got to the line 6.3 times per game, which was his highest month so far this season (though narrowly edges out the 5.9 trips per game he got during a phenomenal December when he was scoring 24.0 points a night on 46.1% shooting).
In particular, this average was boosted by a three-game stretch in the middle of the month when he went to the charity stripe 16, 10, and 8 times, respectively, against the Pistons, Sixers, and Knicks. It may not be entirely coincidental that the Pacers offense scored poorly in the first two of those games, but the Pacers were still able to win.
Against the Pistons, when his team was trailing by 19 at the half, George marched to the line 9 times in the final 29 minutes to help his team come back from a deficit that eventually ballooned to 25 points. Against Philly, though he only shot 4-for-14 on the night, PG got to the line 5 times during a 37-point second quarter that blew the game open. Against the Knicks, with Indiana down 12 after two quarters and looking horrible, Paul got to the line 8 times in the second half as the Pacers mounted a near-comeback (and outscored New York 51-45 in the third and fourth).
Overall, George shot a sad 17-for-50 (34.0%) in those three games. But he made 32-of-34 (94.1%) of his free throws. By getting to the line — and hitting his freebies with such accuracy — he ended up scoring 71 points while taking just 50 shots from the floor, thus remaining efficient even when he couldn’t hit a barn with a baseball while the clock was ticking.
It is unlikely that George is going to re-discover the midrange shooting proficiency he had to start the season. This year, before January 1, he made an unreal 45.3% of his midrange shots. Since the, he has hit just 37.3%.
There is no doubt he can split the difference between the vast gap in those two figures throughout the playoffs if he starts taking better, less-contested looks. But the best way to put more efficiency back into this scoring is to keep focusing on attacking the hoop and getting to the line.
That’s obvious advice for every player, but it is a particularly compelling method for George, who has been absolutely lights out shooting from the line this season.
Before this year, George’s best season at the line was 80.7% (last year). So far this year, he is up to a scorching 87.6% — and given his 92.1% mark since the All-Star break (plus 96.6% for all of February), there is reason to expect to see that number increase in the playoffs.
Of the 20 players in the NBA who get to the line the most per game, nobody is shooting better than Paul George this year. Not Kevin Durant. Not Chris Paul. Not James Harden.
No wonder the Pacers seem to score more efficiently when he gets to the line a lot. And no wonder that four of Indiana’s seven losses this month have included PG getting to the line 4 or fewer times.
Of course, another trend I’ve noticed of late is George perhaps trying too hard to draw fouls at the rim rather than focusing on making the shot. It’s a fine balance: He needs to draw fouls, but do so by being aggressive and using physicality to finish through contact. And most of all, he can probably cut out the whining for foul calls — a tendency that has begun to overcome his on-court persona at times in the second half of this year.
Ultimately, PG just needs to play his game and use his athleticism to knife through defenders in ways most mortals cannot, and try to finish in traffic. And the more he does this rather than settling for shots in the less-congested midrange, the more he should be able to get to the stripe and help the Pacers’ awful offense score a bit easier.