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Last year, the Indiana Pacers didn't get much national attention until late in the season, when they'd already cemented themselves as one of the league's best, most balanced teams. After winning a playoff series and giving the Miami Heat all they could handle in the second round, the Pacers didn't catch anyone by surprise this year; most observers (us included) picked the Pacers to win the Central Division and again challenge for the conference crown.
But then Danny Granger hurt his left knee, taking away the Pacers' leading scorer. Center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill struggled to live up to their big new contracts, and offseason acquisitions D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi were awful for the season's first month. The biggest thing, though? Paul George — the team's first-round pick in 2010, a long, skilled and super-athletic two-way player who took a big step in his second season and looked poised to become a matchup nightmare in Year 3 — stumbled, too.
The 22-year-old swingman struggled when asked to assume Granger's offensive role, shooting less than 40 percent from the floor over the season's first month and looking less than stellar in his first crack at being a primary NBA scoring threat. As a result, last season's top-10 offense plummeted to the league's third worst after 16 games (and would've been worse if not for metronome-steady power forward David West) and only the NBA's stingiest defense kept the Pacers at .500. Indy already suffered nationally from a lack of stars; now they were a starless team with underperforming pieces that couldn't score and turned most games into grind-it-out rockfights. And so, folks haven't talked about them much.
That might change after Tuesday's home win over the Heat, though. Because while the underlying story is the Pacer D holding Miami's No. 3-ranked offense to a season-low 77 points and less than one point per possession for just the fourth time this season (thanks, Kevin Pelton), the overarching one is that, while the rest of us weren't watching, George has started playing like a star. A 29-point, 11-rebound, one-turnover performance turned in primarily against LeBron James tends to make folks stand up and take notice of that.
Twenty-two of George's team-high 29 came after halftime, including 12 (on 5 for 9 shooting) in a critical third quarter in which he nearly outscored the clamped-down Heat himself by himself, tilting the game in Indy's favor and putting the Pacers in position for a statement win to celebrate coach Frank Vogel's recently signed contract extension.
After the game, George made no attempt to downplay how important it was for him to perform well against the reigning regular-season and NBA Finals MVP, according to Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press:
"It's a chance to for me to see where I'm at, going against one of the best, if not, the best in the league," George said. "Another challenge to myself to go at LeBron. I definitely wanted to battle him."
And he did, using his 6-foot-10 frame to harass James into a 4-for-10 first half before shaking off his own early offensive struggles to get loose in the second half. He didn't hold the MVP down entirely — James finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks, though he also turned the ball over an uncharacteristic seven times — but on Tuesday night he gave the Pacers an edge in a matchup that Miami certainly isn't accustomed to losing, or even having in question.
It was a pretty monstrous role reversal from the last time the two players met, in the second round of the 2012 Eastern Conference playoffs, which the Pacers lost four games to two as George shot just 36.5 percent from the floor and frequently seemed tentative in his attempts to defend James and running buddy Dwyane Wade. As Vogel sees it, for George to turn the tables at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday was just another big step in an ongoing series of them, according to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star:
“It was huge for him,” Vogel said. “He took it very, very personal, not just what he did last year in the regular season, but he did not have a good series. He took a lot of criticism. It was very important to him to be assertive and to prove he’s growing. He’s really blossoming in front of our eyes.”
The growth has been evident over the past five weeks, which have seen George average 18.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game and shoot 44 percent from the floor, 37 percent from 3-point range and 81 percent on free throws. This includes a pair of down performances in Indy's recent back-to-back against the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks; before that, as SB Nation's Paul Flannery noted, George had averaged 21/8/4/2 on 47 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3 over his previous 15 games.
George's offensive uptick has coincided (perhaps not coincidentally) with the Pacers posting a 13-6 record since Dec. 1, a period during which Indy's offense has been slightly less putrid (scoring 99.9 points per 100 possessions, 21st in the league, up from 28th) and their league-best defense has been even better (allowing 95.1 points per 100 possession, down from 96.2-per-100 over the first 16 games). All of a sudden, it seems, the middling Pacers team that started the season is now 21-14, 8-2 in their last 10 games, sitting fourth in the East and just three games back of Miami for the conference's top spot, all with a bottom-third of the league offense that figures to get a shot in the arm when Granger returns, which could be within the next month.
Whenever Granger does come back, though, it's unlikely that we'll see George recede; after his early struggles, he's proven that he can handle more of the load for the Pacers on both ends of the floor, revealing gifts that no less a source than James said Tuesday night have always been there, according to Wells of the Star:
“I just think it’s all about confidence and opportunity,” James said. “The simple fact that Danny Granger is hurt has given him an opportunity to showcase what he’s capable of doing. He’s going out there and doing a little bit of everything.
“He’s rebounding, he’s scoring, he’s making plays. It’s not like he hasn’t been there. He was that player last year, but he wasn’t able to come out of it because he wasn’t as featured as he is now.”
Or as he'll be come Thursday night, when the Pacers will take on the East's No. 2 team, the New York Knicks, in a nationally televised contest on TNT, and George will figure to see a lot of Knicks leading scorer Carmelo Anthony. (Provided Melo isn't suspended.) If George turns in another performance like last night's, you can bet this Pacers team will become a much more frequent topic of national conversation.