This part of the NBA season — the weeks heading into the All-Star break — is generally a period in which the excitement dwindles a bit. Teams have been able to get a good grasp on how they stack up in their conference’s playoff race and, as David West would say, practices are “dragging” for the Indiana Pacers. Tough to imagine other teams around the league — especially the uptempo offenses — aren’t feeling lethargic.
Paul George may be exemplifying that theory the strongest …. or he’s just having a difficult time finding the bottom of the net.
Since the Pacers experienced a distasteful defeat to the hands of the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 25, George has been in a bit of a shooting slump that has forced teammates to pick up some of the slack. Coach Vogel couldn’t ask for a better team effort on Monday evening against the Orlando Magic, as Indiana’s bench scored 49 points to make up for another performance George likely wasn’t proud of.
Those six games included in George’s shooting recession all served as prime examples that Indiana is a collective unit that won’t live and die by one budding superstar.
There are reasons to believe George, as well as Pacers fans, shouldn’t be too heavily concerned about the rough individual stretch.
First, it’s worth looking at his struggles in each of the games before critiquing his performance as a whole.
In Denver on Jan. 25, Indiana was on the second game of a back-to-back. Understand, however, that it wasn’t just your typical back-to-back. It was arguably the toughest two-game stretch of the year; heading straight from an overtime battle with the Sacramento Kings to the Pepsi Center for a meeting with a team (Nuggets) that ranks 4th in the league in “pace,” which is a measure of offensive possessions per 48 minutes. Coming off the late-game heroics he demonstrated in Sacramento, it appeared George was just a bit drained — and the thin Mile High air likely didn’t help. George converted on just 6-of-18 field goals (33.3 percent) and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. Finishing with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists, the All-Star probably took some of the accountability for Indiana’s 109-96 defeat to their ex-assistant, Brian Shaw.
Continuing on their Western Conference road trip, George coincidentally experienced one of his worst shooting nights of the season … in front of the crowd that remained hopeful the 23-year-old wouldn’t re-sign with Indiana. In Staples Center on Jan. 28, George used the assistance of his teammates to ensure a 12-point victory over the Lakers, playing just three hours away from his hometown (Fresno, California). Statistically, the game turned out to be his third-worst outing of the year in terms of shot efficiency, as George knocked down 4-of-21 field goals (19 percent), including 1-of-6 attempts from beyond the arc. Getting to the line nine times, it also marked the second consecutive game in which he missed four free throws. The Pacers were able to win due to David West’s veteran leadership and 19 huge points, and the fact that they were able to out-rebound the Lakers 63-50. Add that to the other pieces of evidence that suggest Mike D’Antoni‘s squad is the worst defensive team in the league. Sadly, that combination isn’t foreign to us.
The home catastrophe to the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 30 led to added frustration, considering everyone seemed to be on board with the “he’ll return to Indy, snap out of it, and put on a show.” Results didn’t quite live up to that assumption, however. In a 102-94 loss, no player on the Pacers’ roster could hit water if they fell out of a boat. At least from the perimeter, that is. Indiana, as a unit, shot 1-of-15 from beyond the arc (6.6 percent), and only received a stale 12 points and 10 rebounds from George. Shooting 5-of-17 from the field alone, and misfiring on all six 3-point attempts, George’s problems indeed carried over. Roy Hibbert kept the team alive through three quarters, but exhibited no offensive involvement in the fourth quarter. That was headed by George Hill, and we witnessed the ending result.
Saturday, Feb. 1, Indiana hosted the Brooklyn Nets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The atmosphere was one that George typically thrives on to make his statements. After all, entering the game, he had posted a series average of 24.6 points per game in the previous three meetings with Jason Kidd‘s new project. Needless to say, George let the headache continue. Scraping by in a 97-96 victory, in which Indiana impersonated a charity by giving the ball away 23 times, George shot just 7-of-19 from the field (36.8 percent) and 2-of-6 from 3-point territory. The rough patch didn’t stop George from attacking, as he still nearly grabbed a double-double with 20 points and eight rebounds. Try to imagine another instance where your superstar shoots poorly, your team commits 23 turnovers, and you still manage to defeat two future Hall-of-Famers and a current All-Star.
In the last game of a three-game home stand, George began to show improvement, along with indication that he may be gaining back the shooting touch. The Pacers didn’t necessarily need a strong night from their max contract guy, since the bench actually came to perform. The discrepancy between offensive production in the starting and second units was …. zero. As the starters scored 49 points, the bench also poured in 49 of their own, highlighted by Danny Granger‘s season-high of 16. George only attempted 12 shots (tied for his lowest since the Dec. 10 meeting against Miami), and connected on five of them. 15 points in just 27 minutes was all George needed to do, and therefore, the burden was lifted off his shoulders in Monday’s 98-79 victory over Orlando. On another note, Indianapolis Stars’ Candace Buckner correctly predicted the score for this one, as she gave a thorough game preview the night before. Kudos for completing the hardest thing a writer or fan could do, in my opinion.
Finally, there was the ever so difficult matchup in Atlanta on Tuesday evening. Visiting Phillips Arena isn’t something the Pacers can say they’ve had success with, seeing as how Atlanta had taken the previous 12 regular season meetings. Directly from the beginning, Frank Vogel’s group got the sense that trouble could loom once again. With three quick turnovers in the first 2:30 of the game, it was the same song, different dance. In fact, the Pacers racked up seven turnovers in the first quarter alone, and ultimately finished the night with 19, a number that is still too monumental for a team with championship aspirations. George didn’t look to force the issue early on, but never heated up throughout the game. As the Pacers managed to hold off a 30-point fourth quarter for the Hawks and late heroics by Cartier Martin, George ended the game with 18 points, seven rebounds, and two steals. The poor shooting stretch picked back up, as he shot 6-of-16 from the field (37.5 percent) and 2-of-8 from deep (25 percent).
George’s combined total in last six games: 33-of-133 field goals (32 percent), 7-of-35 from 3-point range (20 percent), 24-of-34 free throws (70 percent). 16.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game.
It’s shocking that with those percentages, he’s still figuring out ways to be effective. That alone proves how team-driven and unselfish the 2013-14 Pacers have become.
George’s recent struggles haven’t been the heart of many stories, and Indiana didn’t make as much of a deal about it on Tuesday as they did for getting over the hump in Atlanta. David West acknowledged the task they were able to complete:
“This has been a tough place for us, but I thought we came in with the right motivation tonight,” West stated. “They blitzed us the last time we were down here.”
Atlanta did indeed “blitz” the Pacers in the last meeting at Phillips Arena (Jan. 8) as Roy Hibbert played his worst basketball of the season, scoring two points and collecting four rebounds in 22 minutes of action. This time around, however, West became the bad man everyone knows him to be, nailing 52.6 percent of his field goals and coming away with a game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds.
Don’t Worry About George
The NBA season is a war for each team, comprised of 82 battles. It’s purely unrealistic to expect a star, or rising star, to come out blazing every time they hit the floor. More often than not in professional sports, fans enjoy jumping to conclusions when players enter these eye-popping stretches, and even personify the superstars to be greater than they truly are. I’m certainly guilty on occasion, and it’s just part of observing the game. But these guys aren’t superheros …. and they’re not going to be spot on, sharp, and perfect each and every game. Realize: humans experience mishaps every now and then.
Players that are a part of the All-Star game are thought to not have a “break” for the weekend as we like to call it. However, much of All-Star weekend for George (Feb. 14-16) will be relaxed. George has stated that he’s not interested in any extra All-Star festivities other than the marquee game, so hopefully the fatigue factor can be managed once the time comes.
Paul George will be absolutely fine, as the slump may be ready to end.
Next up for the Pacers is a home showdown on Friday with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that edged Indiana in their first meeting on Dec. 2, 106-102. For those who don’t remember, George caught fire from everywhere on the floor and lit up Terry Stott’s defense for 43 points at the Moda Center, highlighted by seven huge 3-pointers. What an opportune time to make a statement …. with Andrew Bynum supporting his teammates from the bench on Friday (in street clothes, of course).
One of the more gut-wrenching injuries occurred in Tuesday’s win over Atlanta, as Lance Stephenson experienced a nasty fall after charging to the rim on a fastbreak and taking a push from Hawks’ Kyle Korver.
Here is a clip of the fall:
Lance Stephenson, while limping towards trainer's room, said "I feel good." Clearly underselling it. Likely something #Pacers will watch
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) February 5, 2014
Stephenson is now listed as day-t0-day with a sore lower back. In a season overruled by the injury plague, it was lucky for the Pacers to see their beloved “energy guy” acknowledge that he’s alright.