INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George was expecting the worst but holding out hope for something better. If Indiana Pacers fans booed him, he got it. He didn’t represent them anymore. He’d broken up with them, leaving them to mourn what they had and what would never come to be. But George thought there would be some recognition of what they had — of how he became a star in that uniform, how he fought to salvage his career following a horrific injury with their support and encouragement. Instead, he had to grapple with the confusing emotions of being jeered every time he touched the ball by the same people who cheered him only eight months ago, many of whom were expressing their displeasure while wearing his Pacers jersey.
“It was tough. I was ultimately part of hanging banners that will forever be in this arena, of winning our division and being a part of some really good Pacers teams,” George told Yahoo Sports, walking down the halls of the building he once figuratively owned. “It sucks that they forget about that and want to relish on a couple of months instead of what I’ve done for years here. It’s fine. I thought I handled it as well as I could. But I’ve moved on and I’m ready for the next part of my career.”
George was rattled during his lone visit to his former home. He shot poorly. He played hot potato with the basketball to keep the noise at a minimum and turned it over with some sloppy dribbling. But George was able to leave Bankers Life Fieldhouse with some pleasure because the Oklahoma City Thunder got a much-needed, by-any-means 100-95 win, and he shushed the crowd after securing the game with some smothering defense on Victor Oladipo, a steal and two free throws.
“Vic is their guy here, right? Right? Don’t let him get the ball. Simple,” George said of the final, critical possession before slapping the table. “Ballgame.”
Though the reunion and the reception were poor, George needed that game, needed that closure to move forward, without ever looking back. The Thunder haven’t figured out this All-Star trio experiment but showed that they would be there for a teammate in his time of need. George wanted the win, so they got him the win.
Russell Westbrook has had to endure his share of criticism for the Thunder’s sputtering start, with detractors taking note of how Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis — the players Oklahoma City used to acquire George — are thriving away from him while George has underwhelmed. But Westbrook admitted that he was aware of what this game meant to George. To help him settle down, Westbrook delivered George the first of his three made field goals by tossing a lob pass that would force his shaken teammate to make a quick, reflex basket before the fans had time to react. George never found his shooting rhythm, but he was engaged defensively the rest of the way, putting the clamps on Oladipo with his agility and length. It might be “Vic time” in Indiana, as George proclaimed it, but not this night.
The Thunder keep waiting for a moment, a game, a string of games to signal that they’ve finally clicked. They’ve already had their share of false starts that merely triggered the next round of concern. But the schedule makers gave Oklahoma City’s two biggest offseason additions the opportunity to shed their pasts with a three-games-in-four-nights swing beginning in Indianapolis and ending in New York. The revenge games will be done before Christmas and if played correctly could be a galvanizing force for a hastily thrown together squad that features three players accustomed to having things go their way.
“Absolutely,” George told Yahoo Sports. “We can focus on what’s ahead of us. We can focus on being [the] Thunder. It’s no more Pacers. It’s no more Knicks. We can focus on what we have to do, to get better as a team and get better as Thunder players. That story, that chapter, and that book is over with.”
George and Carmelo Anthony have both had difficulty adjusting to a new environment in which they have had to go from monopolizing the ball to sharing it, from calling their own number at will to going several possessions without getting a touch. With the offensive weapons at their disposal, the Thunder weren’t expected to have so many problems scoring points. Their defense has saved them and prohibited this union from being a being a complete failure. But a top-heavy yet otherwise stunningly mediocre Western Conference has allowed the Thunder to be out of the playoff picture while remaining within range of home-court advantage for a first-round series. Oklahoma City certainly has the talent to reverse course and give the league another title contender. Time is another matter.
The Thunder don’t know how long they will have George — if he’ll be a full one-year rental, if this team fails to show enough promise by the trade deadline and it has to pull the plug, or if it dangles enough hope for a ring that he decides to commit long term. General manager Sam Presti would rather not lose another star player for nothing in free agency, which means the team essentially has less than two months to turn things around.
Anthony swears that the surprising play of their former teams hasn’t complicated the transition, even while the Pacers(16-12) and Knicks (14-13) both have better records than the Thunder (13-14). “Nah, nah. Hell no. We don’t talk about that. We don’t even discuss that,” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “I know I don’t. I think I’ve watched New York play two or three times this year. Paul, I think, the same thing. It’s hard when you’re in another conference. Different time zone. So it’s very difficult. A lot of those guys on that team are close friends. We talk, text, call. We always check up on each other. Other than that, I wish them guys the best. I hope New York can do it. They hold a special place for me.”
George said the Pacers’ success has given him closure and made him feel better about how he handled his exit by informing the front office of his desire to play elsewhere and giving Indiana the chance to get something of value in return. He didn’t give them a half-hearted eighth season and leave them empty handed. But the timing of his decision still has some Pacers fans salty, because George waited until days before the NBA draft and gave “gut-punched” team president Kevin Pritchard little time to find a package that could’ve given the franchise the picks and prospects that All-Stars usually yield in deals. Pritchard is finally starting to get recognition for swinging a quality deal under the circumstances, especially with Oladipo playing as if an All-Star appearance and NBA Most Improved Player award are within his grasp.
“Vic is the face of Indiana. Vic is the future of Indiana. I’m along with Indiana on this Victor wave,” George said. “Let’s put all this to rest for what it is. I had an amazing seven years here. I was blessed to play in front of a great Indiana fan base, which as you saw tonight, they showed up and showed out. I’m grateful. I’m grateful to play in this organization. But ultimately I didn’t achieve what I wanted to do here and I moved on. Both sides moved on, and let’s all move on.”
Anthony’s return to New York shouldn’t produce the same emotions from fans because both sides shared a mutual disdain for former team president Phil Jackson and understood that the relationship had simply run its course. Plus, unlike George, Anthony didn’t leave just as he entered his prime but rather just as he was exiting it. “At the end of the day, it’s business to me. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not ecstatic to be going back and playing there,” Anthony said. “Like I said, I got a different feeling with New York. A different relationship, different bond with the city, with the fans, with the people. It’s a little bit special for me.”
Oklahoma City has had a win (Golden State) and a winning streak or two that turned out to be teases in regard to progress. But for a team that should feel the weight of expectations and the pressure to succeed, the players don’t appear to have turned on each other. After Wednesday’s win, Westbrook jokingly referred to Anthony as “Radio Raheem” because his Beats Pill provides the soundtrack for the locker room and Anthony had fun with Steven Adams, refusing to give him credit for his strength because he didn’t want to “hype his head up;” and by handing his Pill to Andre Roberson before giving an interview. “Hey, man, I’m not your rookie,” Roberson said. “Yeah, you are,” Anthony replied with a laugh.
Was the late-summer addition of Anthony a case of being greedy, a miscalculation or both? The adjustment for Westbrook and George would’ve been easier than having all three work out of their comfort zones. Westbrook is doing his best not to be too overbearing. All three have had some abysmal shooting nights — sometimes, like in Indiana, it’s the same night. And George has had problems asserting himself when the Thunder need him to be no less than the second option. The pieces don’t naturally fit, which has led to confusion and frustration. Despite the struggles, they remain confident that the wins are soon on the way.
“We good, man,” Westbrook said. “We good. We good.”
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