INDIANAPOLIS -- It was the fourth time in as many games in which the Pacers gave away a lead. For a moment, it looked as if Indiana was destined to lose its third straight -- this one to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers.
But Paul George did as Paul George does. He refused to let that happen. Though the Pacers eked out a measly 115-108 win, PG’s 30-point night was enough to placate lingering concerns that still plague the team.
However, with 2:28 left in Tuesday’s game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, such concerns were at the forefront. The Pacers offense was inconsistent (again), the bench was outscored (again), point guard Jeff Teague missed more shots than he made (again) and the team played down to a team with inferior talent (again).
But Paul George...
With the Pacers trailing by one-point late in the game, George knew it was his moment. He’s the three-time All-Star. He’s the team’s elite player. He’s the one who is supposed to sink big-time buckets.
Consider it done. Not once, not twice, but on three consecutive possessions. The first coming from 18 feet, courtesy of Teague to put the Pacers up 107-106. Then came the turnaround jump shot from the same distance only 30 seconds later.
But the coup de grâce came with 1:08 to go when his stepback jumper over D’Angelo Russell met the bottom of the net. So amped was PG, he took a moment to trash talk the Lakers bench to remind everyone who the best player on the court was.
“I felt confident in that moment,” George said. “I had point guards matched up against me. I knew I had the mismatch and the advantage. I’m just glad (coach McMillan) addressed it and allowed me to take over.”
George made 8 of his 16 attempts from the field, grabbing 7 boards and staying aggressive in getting to the line, where he was a perfect 12-for-12.
The points and stats will always come to a player like George, but more than his efficiency or production, his intangibles have matured. Where he would once force a bad pass or recklessly charge into defenders in hopes of drawing a foul, his play has become more methodical, exacting and precise.
“I think being in that gold-medal run, being around all that talent and those experienced guys definitely helped me out,” George said referencing his summer with Team USA in the Rio Olympics. “I’m a student of the game. I’m always trying to better myself, and that’s helped. I think that’s how guys evolve and elevate.”
Even as George spoke of the win, his primary concern remains on the defensive side of the ball, where the Pacers have been gored multiple times during this still-early season. Though the Lakers shot poorly from long range, they outscored the Pacers in the paint and collected timely baskets in breakaway situations.
That’s a no-go for an All-Defensive player who has spent the duration of his career on teams that were defensive-minded juggernauts.
“I know what a good defensive team looks like,” George said. “We’re nowhere close to that. That’s the only thing I’m preaching to these guys. They’ve been around the league long enough, and they know they’re offensive games well enough. Defensively is where we have to get better at.”
But whether this team can mesh defensively as constructed remains to be seen. Indiana’s rim protection is nonexistent without second-year center Myles Turner, George is the only wing to play worthy perimeter defense and the diminutive backcourt struggles to defend the pick-and-roll.
However, Indiana showed a glimpse of its defensive abilities during the final four minutes when it outscored L.A. 10-4, forcing the Lakers into a series of ugly jumpers.
“Defensively, we were fighting over every screen and forcing them to take long, contested shots,” forward Thaddeus Young, said. “... Right now we’re still not communicating as much as we should. We have to trust each other on offense just as much as we do on defense.”
But there is still the bench, who allowed the Lakers’ reserves to gain a fourth-quarter lead despite the Pacers-debut of Aaron Brooks, who scored 8 points and made one of his three attempts from long range. His lone basket from behind the arc in 32 minutes of play is as many as Teague has made in four games.
This team is still a mix-match of talent and is figuring out how to play fast while maintaining stout defense and diminishing errors -- a fine line that can go south quick in the kind of uptempo offense favored by team president Larry Bird.
But through it all, Paul George...