INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a moment we’ve come to expect from Paul George, one in which the three-time All-Star plays with casual brilliance by collecting crunch-time buckets and asserting his will on defense.
As George re-entered Friday’s game against Portland with 8:34 remaining, it was a moment the Pacers were counting on. The score was tied at 98 and Indiana was looking to complete a furious rally from a 20-point first-half deficit.
But such dynamic play was by no means guaranteed for the seven-year veteran. George played just seven games prior to Friday after injuring his ankle nearly a month ago. When he has played, he’s been as flat as warm beer, shooting below 40 percent from the floor.
But George looked more than just healthy tonight. He was electric and powerful, none more so than when he collected his own rebound on a missed 19-footer to thunder the ball home on an emphatic put-back dunk with 31 seconds left. That was the capstone to Indiana’s 118-111 victory, and George rightfully let out a roar of exhilaration that matched the fervor of fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
George finished with a season-high 37 points on 13-of-27 attempts, making half of his 10 shots from beyond the 3-point arc and six of his seven attempts from the line.The win keeps the Pacers at .500 and doubles as a salve for lingering issues concerning this team, something George was mindful of after the game.
“We just can’t seem to find consistency,” George said. “We’re right in the middle, and that’s just been the theme. You know, we’ll go out and win a big game regardless of who is in the lineup and then tank a big game regardless of who is in the lineup. So we’re just trying to find consistency.”
The Pacers were consistent in some regards during the first half, wherein Indiana looked every bit like a team playing its fifth game in seven nights. Their perimeter defense consistently allowed the Blazers whatever they wanted from downtown, the interior consistently lacked any bite as Portland punished the glass, and the bench was consistently a turnstile. While the Pacers looked dejected and forlorn, the Blazers were jovial as they enjoyed a comfortable 58-38 second quarter lead.
But, as this team so often does, they flipped a switch and played with a level of efficiency and exactness that makes them all the more perplexing to watch. Indiana outrebounded Portland 24-14 after halftime. Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who dropped 19 in the first quarter, was held to a quiet 12 during the third and fourth. Portland’s offense fell off a cliff, shooting 38 percent during the second half, while George reminded everyone what great players do.
But he didn’t do it alone. Though George burned bright during the clutch, forward Thaddeus Young gave his most efficient performance as a Pacer, scoring 24 points on 13 shots and setting a new career high in made 3-pointers with six. Young rarely is the primary offensive option, but his ability to burn Portland’s perimeter-weary bigs with open jumpers helped keep the Pacers in a game that otherwise could have gone disastrously awry.
“It was one of those games where you had to come out and be on your P’s and Q’s,” Young said. “I think in the second half we were pushing up on the ball and getting ourselves into the game aggressively. We were moving and swinging the basketball and playing through one another as opposed to playing through one person.”
Friday’s bounce-back win marks another chance for the Pacers to hit the reset button on a scatter shot season, one in which the team has stumbled to a 12-12 start and is on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
But now is a good time for the Indiana to maximize its uneven roster and find the best lineups going forward. Nine of Indiana’s next 19 opponents are below .500 -- including stops in New Orleans, Miami, Sacramento and the Lakers. There will be plenty of opportunities for George to re-establish his All-Star form and for these lost Pacers to find their way.
It’s also a good time for Rodney Stuckey and Glenn Robinson III to prove their worth. Monta Ellis, an inefficient guard whose future role remains dubious, missed the second half with a groin injury and opened the window for reserves to show how they can play with the starters.
Trey Dog didn’t pass the test, not tonight. Not after allowing Blazers guard C.J. McCollum to score nine third-quarter points, all coming on open looks from downtown. But Stuckey has recently found a niche on this team in the fourth quarter, supplanting Ellis as the crunch-time two guard against the Blazers and Wednesday’s win over Phoenix.
“Rodney’s basketball I.Q. is fairly high,” George said. “He’s got a great knack for the game, he’s one of the best drivers we have. His ability to get to the paint and see the weakside is really the best we have. Him and Monta are so good as seeing that weakside. That’s where teams are broken down at.”
But Friday, it was George doing the breaking. Despite all the flaws that remain on this team, they still have Paul George. Sometimes that’s enough. Here’s hoping he gets more help more frequently.