Paul George's Heroics Won't Solve Indiana Pacers' Bigger Problems

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 23, 2014

Indiana Pacers' Paul George (24) reacts during the second half in Game 2 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday, April 22, 2014, in Indianapolis. Indiana defeated Atlanta 101-85. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings

Like most NBA stars, Paul George is a terrific eraser.

On the strength of his own brilliant play, he can temporarily make critics forget their gripes about his team's numerous shortcomings.  Unfortunately for the Indiana Pacers, even George's recent resurgence can't wipe away all of the team's deeply ingrained problems.

We'll get to Indy's issues in a moment, but it's key to start with how well George played in Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks. On the strength of 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals, Paul took complete control of an NBA game for the first time in months.

The numbers were nice, but it was the way George played that mattered more. He stroked the triple confidently, hitting 5-of-7 on the night. He got into the passing lanes for deflections, showing an activity level that had been missing for far too long. And he played with an edge that that the Pacers desperately needed.

Basically, George looked a lot more like the guy we all thought occupied the No. 3 position in the NBA hierarchy behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant back when the season began.

There's a temptation to look at George's performance and conclude that the Pacers are primed for a turnaround. With so many pieces jumbled around in Indy's proverbial puzzle, it makes sense to assume order might be restored by the biggest one finding its place.

But we can't make that assumption. Not yet. Not after the way George mugged at the Hawks bench when he drilled a buzzer-beating three to close out the third quarter.

Nice shot, Paul. Next time act like you've been there before.

This isn't a "cranky sportswriter tells athlete to class it up a little" situation. George can act however he wants. The problem with his staredown and saunter toward the sideline after that shot was subtler: It belied lingering self-doubt.

The Pacers (and George) know how deep-seated their issues are and they're feeling vulnerable. If that weren't the case, George wouldn't have lashed out at the bench of a No. 8 seed that might not even have made the playoffs if it weren't for a historically weak conference makeup.

George was playing the bully. He was acting outwardly confident toward an obviously weak opponent in a way that screamed "insecurity."

For good reason.

None of the recent reports out of Indiana have been encouraging. Interpersonal strife has come along with the team's on-court struggles, or perhaps the former caused the latter. Sorting out that chicken-and-egg quandary isn't the point here, though.

The point is: Indy has issues, and they're not going away.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported on a late-season dustup between two of Indiana's rotation players, writing:

On the eve of this Eastern Conference series, the wobbling No. 1 seed punctuated its final playoff preparations in a most self-destructive way: Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson.

Per Marc Stein of ESPN, team president Larry Bird is questioning head coach Frank Vogel's management of the roster:

I'm sort of going to Frank's side because he's had so much success by staying positive. We do have to stay the course. But I also think he's got to start going after guys when they're not doing what they're supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you've got to take them out of the game when they're not doing what they're supposed to do, or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn't done that enough.

The players aren't fond of each other, the coach is on a seat that's at least slightly warm and the horrendous two-plus months the Pacers put together to close the year show they weren't just fraying at the seams when the postseason started.

They were completely falling apart.

George playing like a stud certainly helps matters, though. When he's at his best, it's a whole lot easier for the Pacers to win. And winning tends to solve most problems.

But George can't suddenly make Roy Hibbert a dominant defensive force again and he can't undo the damage to Indiana's chemistry. Most importantly, Paul can't do anything to rejuvenate a fatigued first unit nearly driven into the ground in pursuit of the No. 1 seed.

Apr 22, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) reacts to the Pacers lead against the Atlanta Hawks in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Atlanta 101-85. Mandato

There's no question seeing George reaffirm his star status is a good thing for Indiana, both in terms of on-court results and morale; it's big for the Pacers' long-term plans as well.

Going forward, George must be the franchise cornerstone; Indiana is certainly paying him like one and the decision to give him $90 million is not one the team can afford to have missed on.

More immediately, though, there are just too many things broken for George to fix by himself.

It's probably safer to assume the Pacers will avoid a first-round upset now than it was just a few days ago, but who's to say all the same issues won't drag them down in a subsequent round? Remember, Hibbert still made just one field goal in seven tries in Game 2 and the Hawks missed plenty of makeable shots in the third quarter.

There were a few signs of team-wide improvement by the Pacers in Game 2, but we'll need a bit more evidence their offensive adjustments and defensive tweaks are sustainable before we proclaim their more systemic problems solved.

The Pacers' effort in Game 2 was an exceptionally rare thing: a beacon of solid play seen just a handful of times over the past few months. George deserves credit for leading the charge toward respectability.

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 22: Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers gets the crowd pumped up against the Atlanta Hawks in the East Conference Quarter Finals Game Two at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 22 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expr
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

But we can't assume one nice game by a still-promising superstar-in-waiting changes the entire narrative for a very vulnerable team.

George is an eraser, not a miracle-worker.


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