The Indiana Pacers confirmed Wednesday what many observers suspected to be true on Tuesday night: All-Star small forward Paul George suffered a concussion when Dwyane Wade's knee hit him in the back of the head during a scramble for a loose ball in the fourth quarter of the the Pacers' Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
George told reporters after the game that he "blacked out" and experienced blurry vision after the hit to the back of his head; this, apparently, is not what he told the team's medical staff at the time of the incident. After catching wind of the statement, the Pacers' doctors conducted further tests in accordance with the NBA's concussion policy and found no evidence of concussion symptoms; a subsequent examination by a consulting neurologist on Wednesday morning, though, resulted in the diagnosis of a concussion, meaning George now has to complete the "return-to-participation" protocol before he's able to be cleared to resume on-court activity.
Game 3 of the best-of-seven series is set for Saturday night in Miami, and it's entirely possible that George's symptoms will abate, that he will be able to effectively complete all the requisite steps in the protocol and that he'll get the green light to suit up at AmericanAirlines Arena. If that doesn't happen, though — if he runs into some speed bumps along the way, if he decides discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to brain injury, if someone whose job it really should be to think more broadly and smartly about these things does so and decides to give this one time to breathe, etc. — then what does that mean for the Pacers on the court, for head coach Frank Vogel, and for Indy's chances of getting back on the right side of the coin after conceding home-court advantage in Game 2?
Here are a couple of big questions, with some stabs at identifying answers:
How will the Pacers defend LeBron James?
The Pacers and Heat have played 16 times over the past two regular- and postseasons. In those 16 games, James has played a total of 661 minutes, and George has been on the court for 614 of them (92.9 percent). He doesn't always defend James — switches sometimes happen on pick-and-rolls, cross-matches sometimes happen in transition, etc. But he almost always defends when these two teams play; he spent more time defending James one-on-one during the regular season than any other Pacer spent on any other member of the Heat, and he checked James 78 percent of the time Miami spent in the half-court in Game 1 of this series, according to NBA.com's SportVU optical tracking data. (That data for Game 2 hasn't been published yet, but you'd suspect the number wouldn't be too far off.)
To be fair, it's not as if George has locked LeBron up in their matchup. The four-time MVP is averaging 23.5 points per game on 55.6 percent shooting through two 2014 Eastern Conference finals games; he scored 45 points (on 49 percent shooting from the floor and 38 percent shooting from 3) in the 36:24 that SportVU had him being defended by George during the 2013-14 regular season; he averaged 29 on 51/44 shooting against Indy in the 2013 ECF; and he averaged 21 on 51/50 shooting against Indy during the 2012-13 regular season. But with his balance, lateral quickness, excellent footwork, 6-foot-11 wingspan and talent for navigating his way underneath intended screens, George — who has finished in the top eight in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the last two seasons and was named to the All-Defensive Second Team following the 2012-13 season — makes moving without the ball, catching it, operating with it and scoring as difficult for James as anybody in the league. This is why, y'know, he's been on the floor for 92.9 percent of James' minutes against the Pacers over the past two years.
"Paul George has got to guard LeBron," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said when asked after Game 2 if he thought his starters were getting tired late in the game. "He's got to stay in there when he's in there."
If he can't, though ... well, where does Vogel turn? A review of the tape from the 47 minutes James played with George sitting over the last two seasons doesn't offer too much enlightenment.
That's because the bulk of those minutes came during last year's Eastern Conference finals, when Vogel's top option for guarding LeBron when George went to the bench for a breather or with foul trouble was 6-foot-6 reserve swingman Sam Young ... who's no longer with the team (mostly because he wasn't very good) and who spent this season plying his trade in Australia and Puerto Rico.
For what it's worth, James only made three shots in 11 tries with Young as his primary defender, according to a video review, although a couple of the misses were more attributable to Young getting help from the likes of Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough after being beaten on the block than to anything Young himself did. Another former Pacer, Gerald Green, got a crack at LeBron, too; James went 1-for-3, but the two misses turned into a Miami offensive rebound and a personal foul drawn.
Looking only at actually-on-the-roster options, then, Vogel's pickings are pretty slim. The best among them is probably Lance Stephenson, who's a stout 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with quick feet and a wingspan (6-foot-10 1/2, according to DraftExpress) just shy of George's. He's also strong enough to go toe-to-toe with LeBron a little bit, as evidenced by his right-block backdown in Game 1, and LeBron's gone 1-for-4 when defended by Lance in those non-George minutes.
Given the size differential, though, you'd have to imagine James would look to take Lance right down to the block and work to either back down to the basket or create space to spin back and shoot over the top of the shorter Stephenson, which could get dicey quickly for Indiana. Plus, moving Stephenson over there takes him away from Dwyane Wade, who's averaging 25 a night on a crisp 64.7 percent mark from the floor through two ECF games and looking like a very dangerous man on the offensive end after a season full of minutes management.
Beyond Stephenson, though, the cupboard's pretty bare. Just-reinserted-into-the-rotation Rasual Butler? Hardly-ever-activated rookie Solomon Hill? Recently-reactivated-after-strep-throat Evan Turner? (Not to turn the knife of a trade that most long ago agreed has gone south, but it'd sure be nice to have Danny Granger for a game or two right now.) Not exactly a slew of inspiring options, I'm afraid. My guess: Vogel starts Turner if George can't go, puts Stephenson on LeBron and Turner on Wade to start, directs them to funnel absolutely everything they can into Hibbert and hopes for the best.
What about on offense?
The Pacers offense wasn't much to write home about for most of Tuesday's Game 2, shooting just 40 percent from the floor as a team, struggling to initiate offense when the Heat (who still haven't put together a classic "we're going to choke you out and turn you over" game) elected to get active with their rotations, and failing to get much of anything going when reserve center Chris Andersen was in the game (Indy shot 5-for-19 in the paint with "The Birdman" patrolling). George deserves a fair amount of the blame for that, as he missed 12 of 16 field goal attempts, including an 0-for-6 mark on shots between the restricted area and the 3-point line, and was unable to cash in when Miami put a hand in his face (just 2-for-12 on contested attempts). Generally speaking, though, the Pacers' offense has been considerably better with the two-time All-Star and leading scorer on the floor than off it, especially against the Heat.
Through 15 games this postseason, the Pacers have scored an average of 102.6 points per 100 possessions with George on the floor, compared to just 88.8 points-per-100 when he sits. The former isn't exactly setting the world on fire — it would've ranked 20th among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency during the regular season — but the latter is several levels of hell below even the basement-dwelling Philadelphia 76ers in terms of scoring punch. Through two games against Miami — admittedly a microscopic sample, and one tilted by the Pacers' very-un-Pacer-like scoring outburst in their Game 1 victory — Indy's offense has been more than 24 points-per-100 better with George (114.6-per-100) than without him (90.5-per-100).
That largely tracks with what we saw during the regular season, too — Indy was about 4 1/2 points-per-100 better on offense with George than without him against the league at large, and in four games against the Heat, the Pacers averaged nearly 11 1/2 fewer points-per-100 in non-George minutes (88.2-per-100) than with him in the mix (still a none-too-explosive 99.6-per-100).
George's individual numbers weren't especially gaudy against the Heat — a shade under 22 points and five assists per game on 42.9 percent shooting from the field — but he was a knock-down 3-point shooter (42.3 percent from deep) who got himself to the line more than a half-dozen times per game and hit 88 percent of his freebies. His gift for working off the ball, running through mazes of away-from-the-action screens to find openings for catch-and-shoot opportunities, and as a secondary ball-handler in the screen-and-roll, capable of probing off the bounce and making interior passes to the likes of Hibbert and David West, gives Indiana's offense a needed bit of variety, and he's one of the few players on Indy's roster capable of making plays for himself and others off the bounce when things bog down. (As they often do in Indiana's half-court sets.)
That said, as we saw in Game 1, the best version of the Pacers' offense is one in which the ball doesn't stick, everyone gets involved, and possessions feature multiple screens, smart rolls, timely passes and a willingness to move away from the ball. In Game 1, all five Pacer starters had at least 62 half-court touches, according to the SportVU tracking data, and four had at least 71; in Game 2, George and Stephenson each had 86, well above anyone else, and West — so instrumental in facilitating the offense in both Indy's series-clinching win over the Washington Wizards and in the Game 1 victory — wound up the low man on the totem pole. That can't continue if George is unavailable in Game 3.
A larger share of the ball-handling duties will certainly be taken over by Stephenson — if we've learned one thing by the performances Lance has put on during his contract year showcase, it's that he tends to abhor an offensive vacuum — but the Pacers also need to be more focused on getting West activated early at the elbows, where he can either stick that 17-foot jumper for which he's long been renowned or work the high-low passing game with a (thankfully) active-on-the-interior Hibbert. Without George's ability to make magic on his own, the Pacers are going to have to rely on execution, smarts and guile, and nobody in blue and yellow embodies those qualities better than the veteran power forward.
A couple of other notes laying bare just how rare it is for Indy to be thinking about going into battle without George:
• Of the Pacers' 12 most frequently used five-man units this season, only one didn't include George; it was the other four starters plus Granger. No. 13 featured since-released second-year swingman Orlando Johnson. Factoring in only presently available talent, the most common sans-George lineup used by Vogel — Stephenson, Turner, C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola — played just 35 total minutes together, spread over six games. The good news is that they were +11 in those 35 minutes!
• Only two no-George lineups have gotten more than 10 minutes of burn this postseason: that Stephenson-Turner-Watson-Mahinmi-Scola crew (-8 in 21 total minutes, scoring less than 80 points per 100 possessions, which is the bad news) and Stephenson-Mahinmi-Watson-West-George Hill (-2 in 13 minutes, allowing more than 109 points-per-100). This is what happens when you don't trust your bench or, more accurately, when you don't have a bench you can trust; if it comes to pass, we'll see what combinations Vogel will roll our in search of something he can trust.
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