Paul George's Rediscovered Superstardom Elevating Pacers' Playoff Ceiling

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Paul George's Rediscovered Superstardom Elevating Pacers' Playoff Ceiling
USA Today

If the Indiana Pacers are serious about becoming the championship team we all thought they were in December, they'll have to do it by riding a rejuvenated Paul George.

George went off for 39 points in Game 4 of the Pacers' second-round series against the Washington Wizards, suddenly channeling the early season offense that had him involved in legitimate discussions alongside—and not beneath—LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the NBA hierarchy.

He played 46 minutes on Sunday, eschewing rest and resisting any attempt to move him off of Bradley Beal on defense.

"Usually, coach takes me out to get a breather, but I knew that every horn that sounded wasn't for someone coming to get me," George said, per Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "I already had it in my head I was pretty much going to play the whole distance."

A high volume of minutes didn't reduce George's efficiency. He railed seven triples in 10 attempts and shot 12-of-20 overall. His production in putting the Pacers up 3-1 in the series was flat-out historical:

More than the raw numbers, though, George played with the confidence he flashed earlier in the year. There were times not so long ago (you know, when the Pacers were the best team in the league) when his boldness was striking. In November and December, he hunted big shots and carried himself like a bona fide superstar.

That swagger is back.

 

Familiar Territory

David Dow/Getty Images

It's vital to Indiana that George believes he can do anything again because for its offense to function, he has to do almost everything.

Let's not diminish the impact of George's teammates, though. There's something symbiotic going on here, and PG's improvement in these playoffs (and particularly in Game 4 against the Wizards) owes at least partially to the Pacers' more fluid offensive play.

In other words, George's return to form isn't an isolated incident. It's the result of a team finding its groove again.

Sure, George subsists on a diet of contested triples and often barrels into the lane recklessly to get his free-throw attempts—of which he's had 20 in the past two games against Washington. In some sense, he does have to go at it alone a little too often.

But when George is at his best, he gets more room to cast away from distance and moves into the lane a bit more effectively. Those things are both made easier when Indiana gets decent spacing and the ball doesn't stop.

One of the key problems during the Pacers' awful three-month stretch was the way the offense totally bogged down for, well, weeks at a time. The Pacers dribble too much, have a bizarre habit of passing up open threes (looking at you, George Hill) and featuring far too little off-ball movement.

USA TODAY Sports

The result was a familiar sight that cropped up entirely too often from January on: a Pacers player dribbling the ball with four teammates standing stock-still, waiting for him to make something out of nothing. Most times, "something" ended up being a forced attempt under duress or an ugly turnover.

We all saw it. It was ugly.

Now, the Pacers are seeing better movement away from the ball. And if you watched closely in Game 4, Indiana actually had a series of cuts and curls coming from the weak side—basic actions, sure—that forced the Wizards to pay attention to players off the ball.

There was still too much dribbling, but the Pacers offense looks worlds better lately. That improvement topped out in Game 4, thanks to George.

 

Ripple Effects

Rob Carr/Getty Images

And George's re-emergence as a superstar is key because it opens up other chances for his offensively deficient teammates. It's a cyclical thing: They space the floor and quit pounding the dribble, and he gets the space he needs to operate.

In turn, the extra attention George draws frees things up for guys like Hill and Lance Stephenson to capitalize on open shots. And isn't that what real superstars do? Make things easier for their teammates?

Defense isn't an issue for the Pacers. They're still excellent, owners of the best defensive rating in the postseason after leading the league during the year, per NBA.com. And as a credit to George, he's remained stellar on that end of the floor amid his offensive ups and downs over the second half of the regular season.

It feels strange to step back and appreciate what George is doing in these playoffs, mostly because his numbers in the postseason aren't really a leap forward as much as they're a return to form. Check out how his playoff figures compare to what he did in the first two months of the regular season:

Paul George, Then and Now
PPG RPG APG FG%
Nov./Dec. 23.8 5.9 3.5 .471
Postseason 23.5 9.7 4.1 .443

NBA.com

Pretty close, huh?

Much like he did early in the season, George is keeping the Pacers offense afloat while their defense drowns opponents. Remember, we saw Indiana hold the Wizards to just 63 points in Game 3; this is still a unit with elite stopping power.

Forget Washington for a second, though. This is about more than the imminent defeat of the upstart, not-quite-ready Wizards.

 

Ready for a Real Test

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

This is about how George playing at an elite level allows the Pacers to give the Miami Heat a serious run in the conference finals. Let's face it, Indiana is no match for Miami unless George plays at least as well as he did in last year's matchup.

In the 2012-13 conference finals against the Heat, George averaged 19.4 points, six rebounds and 5.1 assists while hitting 47.5 percent of his shots from the field and 44.1 percent from long distance, per NBA.com. He's a little short of the shooting efficiency he flashed last postseason, but he's producing like a star otherwise.

And he's carrying himself like one again, too, which matters more than anything.

It's hard to know whether George's re-emergence is enough to wash away the other issues that plagued Indiana over the past few months. But at least it gives the Pacers a realistic chance to threaten Miami. And that's saying something, because they barely managed to beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round just a couple of weeks ago.

It's been a rough road for Indy, and we've been desperate for signs of a turnaround.

Roy Hibbert's revival is a positive, as is the recent decision to jettison Andrew Bynum from the locker room.

But George playing like a star is the big one.

If he can be Indy's go-to guy, its ultra-confident leader, its offensive lynchpin and the guy we all thought he'd become earlier this year, the Pacers have a fighting chance against absolutely anybody.

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