LAS VEGAS – If Paul George wins a championship with the U.S. at the World Cup this summer, perhaps it will help him get over his Indiana Pacers falling apart when it mattered the most last season. The way George sees it, the Pacers would be NBA champions now if they had just stayed the course.
"If we had the same mentality that we had to start the year off, we would have won the championship," George told Yahoo Sports. "We were playing the best ball of all of our careers and Pacers history in general. For us to not finish the year where we started is tough."
The Pacers looked like NBA title contenders after starting the season 40-11. They struggled down the stretch and their poor play carried into the postseason. They needed the full seven games to beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round and six games to beat the Washington Wizards in the second round. They ended up losing to the Miami Heat in the East finals.
Along the way, the Pacers didn't lack for dysfunction. All-Star center Roy Hibbert oddly struggled mightily and was even benched in the playoffs and Lance Stephenson and Even Turner got in a fight in practice. During the East finals, Stephenson made headlines for blowing in LeBron James' ear.
George thinks Indiana's biggest problem was adapting to the bull's-eye on them.
"Before, we were just jumping on teams and they were laying down. And then toward the end of the season, they [were ready]," George said. "When you play Miami, you're going to get up for them. That's how teams were playing against us. They were ready. They were amped for us. They didn't win a game in two to three games, but against us they didn't miss a shot."
As for the off-court drama, George said: "We had no locker room issues. You are going to clash. You got guys that got into it. But there was nothing that broke our chemistry. We were still [close] as a team."
After the season finale, George gave a lukewarm endorsement for the Pacers attempting to re-sign Stephenson. Now, George says a lot of Stephenson's antics "could have been avoided" but it wasn't a major team distraction.
"We all know what kind of player Lance was," George said. "Lance always tried to get under people's skin. Some of it could be avoided. But at the end of the day, that's what gets Lance going."
George said he spent a lot of time fishing in Indianapolis once the season ended, but that couldn't keep his mind off the Pacers' struggles and future concerns.
"I just was thinking what would our plans be coming into this next season," George said. "I knew Lance was coming up on a contract. What would happen with George [Hill], Roy? I just wanted to see what was going to go on, what would happen and try to put a finger on it."
Hibbert is still with the Pacers and has been working out with Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this off-season. So is Hill. But gone is Stephenson, who signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets after rebuffing a five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers. Indiana responded by signing veteran guards Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles.
George believes Stephenson, who was miffed about not being named an All-Star last season, was attracted to a star role in Charlotte.
"He did that because he wants to come into his own," George said. "That's not to say he couldn't do that in Indiana. But I think the fresh start gives him the ability to lead a team and take what he got from us to Charlotte. He is a player that wants to be an All-Star, wants to be a superstar in this league. So I think he made that move based on that."
George plans on helping compensate for Stephenson's loss by being much more aggressive offensively like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady were in their primes.
"Coming into next season I need to be in the 25-30-point mark," said George, who averaged 21.7 points last season. "I got to get back to that old Kobe, T-Mac, 25-shots-a-night kind of guy."
The Eastern Conference appears open after James' decision to leave the Heat and return to Cleveland. George, however, still believes the Pacers are currently the team to beat in the East because of their experience, talent and familiarity – while acknowledging any team that acquires Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love also could greatly increase its title chances.
"It just spreads the whole field out," George said of James' move. "You got a good eight or nine teams that can get to the Finals. But I'm still confident we can get to the Finals."
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