CHICAGO — Paul George went down hard, the contact intersecting up high as the basketball, his wrist and Jimmy Butler’s converged in an instant. And George’s terrific, difficult, exciting, exasperating comeback season got a little more trying.
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He was right there afterward, after Indiana coach Frank Vogel had flung off his suit coat as he left the court and then bit his tongue, saving himself money, during a brief dressing-room chill. George sat at his stall, still in the “Hoosiers” uniform, leaning back, legs splayed before, knees bundled in ice.
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Pacers vs. Bulls
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Jimmy Butler scores 28 points including the game-winning shot in overtime to lead the Bulls past the visiting Pacers, 102-100.
Of course he knew what was coming. The Pacers start didn’t hold back quite like his coach.
“Questionable no-call,” he said of that final play, the one that left Indiana on the short end of the 102-100 overtime outcome. “I got bodied and I couldn’t finish. He didn’t touch the ball. There was no block. I couldn’t shoot the ball because he came down on my arm. It sucks, but I’ve been fighting this battle for a while.”
Butler had scored the game-winner on a somewhat similar play seconds before. He deftly and improbably steered in a lob pass from Pau Gasol with George shadowing and elevating alongside him.
Y’know, I missed a year and a half. So this is like a rookie wall for me. And I’m trying to find my way. Just battle my way through it.
– Indiana Pacers Jerseys star Paul George
“The only thing,” George said, “I didn’t foul him.”
Nobody said this face-of-the-franchise stuff was going to be easy.
George’s return from that ghastly leg injury in a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas 17 months ago was — and remains, frankly — one of the NBA’s happiest stories of 2015. To go from where George was that night — rushed off to a hospital and surgery, his career very much in doubt, the game’s biggest names nauseous and teary over his plight — to where he is now is remarkable.
Appearing in all 31 games for Indiana, George ranks eighth in the NBA in scoring average (24.1), fifth in field-goal attempts, fourth in 3-pointers taken and ninth in minutes. His usage rate is a career-high 31.1, same with his 20.7 PER.
When the first returns of All-Star balloting were announced, only LeBron James had received more votes among East frontcourt players. And George was an early MVP contender, grabbing November’s Player of the Month honors. Never mind the Pacers’ new offensive style or reconfigured roster, George’s grab at the team’s reins had led them to a surprising 11-5 start.
Kia Awards: Paul George
The Pacers’ Paul George is the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month in November.
Then the 6-foot-9 wing hit what even the Pacers.com Web site referred to as a “mysterious” slump. Through Indiana’s first 29 games, George had averaged 27.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 45.2 percent overall, 45.4 percent from the arc. He scored a career-high 48 points at Utah on Dec. 5 and was getting to the foul line for an average of 7.7 free throws.
But over his last 12 games — including Wednesday’s 7-of-20, 19-point performance against the Bulls — George’s numbers are almost all down: 18.4 ppg, cheapjerseysus 6.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, 34.1 FG percentage, 31.2 3-point percentage. He has averaged 4.9 free throws, suggesting that George has paid a toll for his frequent public comments about the NBA’s officials greater than the $50,000 or so in fines.
George Drops Career-High 48
Paul George went off on Saturday night, pouring in a career high 48 points vs. the Jazz.
At United Center Wednesday, he scored eight points in the fourth quarter to help the Pacers lead by seven with less than three minutes left. But he got just one more bucket in regulation and was scoreless in overtime.
Being the name above the title, without veterans like David West and Roy Hibbert around to share the load that got Indiana to two Eastern Conference finals, isn’t for the meek.
“The early part of the year has been about finding his way in a new offensive system,” Vogel said. “Obviously he exploded onto the scene in the first month. The amount of defensive attention he’s gotten has big-time increased since then. So he’s facing a lot more double teams. Trying to share the basketball more. Still being a willing passer, which is good. He’s continuing to grow.”
Said George: “It’s continuously changing, to try to figure this thing out. This is a rough stretch I’m going through. But slowly and surely, I’m getting back comfortable.”
The bubble of confidence that enveloped George shortly after his surgery, carrying him through lonely, uncertain days in rehab and in the gym, as well as six shaky appearances last spring and some soreness that lingers in the repaired leg, has brought him this far. He doesn’t sound as if it has burst.
“Still getting the same shots, same looks,” George said. “Getting three’s, the same way. … I’m still doing the same things [to prepare], still getting the same amount of shots as when I was going through the hot streak. It’s just, at this point in the season, I’m just hitting … Just hit a wall after that.
Steal And Three
Paul George steals the ball from Pau Gasol, leads the break and pulls up for the three pointer.
“Y’know, I missed a year and a half. So this is like a rookie wall for me. And I’m trying to find my way. Just battle my way through it.”
It is one thing to attend to one’s game through challenging times. It’s quite another to lug around responsibility for the team’s results overall. George’s ambition of coming back not just as a solid NBA player but as one of the league’s elite is getting tested.
“It’s rough, especially being the leader of this team and going through this,” he said. “Guys are lookin’ upon me to be the leader, and I have to. But I’ll find my way.”
The Pacers have slogged through the regular season with George and without George, and with definitely is better, even as they endure a 6-6 dip.
“He helps obviously with his play out on the court,” Vogel said. “Knowing you can trust you’ve got one of the best defenders in the league to put against these great scorers on the perimeter. What he adds offensively, to actually impact the game with his scoring and his playmaking.
“But I think he impacts the group’s confidence. Knowing he’s out there with you. We walk into every building all year long and there’s not an opponent that we play or a building that we’re playin’ in that we don’t feel we can win it. If you don’t have a player of Paul George’s stature, you’re not going to have that confidence.”
The Pacers do have a player of George’s stature again, the best thing possible as they head into 2016.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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