NBA Saturday: Paul George Coming Into His Own
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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George Emerging In Indy: Four years ago Indiana Pacers forward Paul George wasn’t even ranked in the top 150 nationally by most recruiting services. He was relatively unknown prior to playing at Fresno State, where after two years he impressed NBA scouts and general managers enough to justify leaving as a sophomore.
When the Indiana Pacers invested the 10th overall pick in him in the 2011 draft, it was with the understanding that his serious potential could take some time to tap into. After all, he was just 20 years old at the time. He was far from a polished product.
We are now in 2012 and the ridiculous pace at which George has been developing since being an overlooked high school senior has only continued. George is one of the top second-year players in the league. He’s set career marks for points twice in the last three games, most recently hanging 30 points on the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.
“You got to be excited to play the defending champs,” George said to HOOPSWORLD. “I went out there and really just gave them my all. The way I’ve been playing, I’ve grown to a comfort level, I just feel like I can knock down any shot now. My teammates definitely found me, and I was just trying to make plays, rebound, defend, just do all the things I usually do.”
“He’s oozing confidence, as is our whole team,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. “But, the kid is just good at pretty much everything. And he’s pure, and he’s refreshing to coach, and he’s just got a pure desire to be great, and it’s showing up on the court. He’s got the versatile, complete package and when he puts it together like he did tonight he can be scary good.”
A testament to his versatility, George also had nine rebounds, five assists, five steals and a block on Friday night against the Mavericks. His swat of Mavericks guard Jason Terry’s layup attempt at the 10:11 mark of the fourth quarter was the momentum-shifting play of the game. The Pacers’ lead was just five at that point, it would have been a one-possession ballgame had George not decided to stick with the play and contest the breakaway opportunity for Terry. George’s denial not only prevented that, but it led to a three-point shot for him on the other end. That five point turnaround sparked a 13-3 run as the Pacers ran away with a 98-87 victory. George scored eight points during the spurt and also had an assist.
“We always take credit for our defense,” George said. “When things aren’t going right we can always rely on our defense. We tend to lock down players and teams in the fourth quarter.
“I knew I could have closed out on him, JT is losing a little speed in that Jet, so I knew I was able to catch up to him, and make a play on that. It came down to the other end and A.J. (Price) found me.”
While George has really been blowing up as of late, he’s been steady for the Pacers all year long. Building off of a solid freshman campaign in which he average nine points and four rebounds, George now ranks third on the team in scoring with 12 a night. He’s also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out two assists a contest. Instrumental to his success has been the high level of talent around him.
“That’s just the way this team is built,” George said. “We have six or seven guys averaging double figures. Any given moment, somebody steps up and takes the load. It’s great to be on a team like this where you have All-Star guys willing to set you up to score.
“That’s the mindset I’ve had going into these couple of games. Like I said, I got a comfort level out there. I know what shots I’m going to get, have an understanding of how to create and how to get open. Now it’s just shooting and confidence.”
As a team the Pacers have a lot of confidence, and rightfully so. They’re second in the Central Division only to the Eastern-Conference-leading Chicago Bulls. They’re third in the East overall, which is surprising when you consider that they’ve been on the road for the majority of the year so far.
“We’re in the top five in terms of record, and we’ve played 16 games on the road,” George said. “That’s credit to this group. We’re working hard, we’re focusing in, paying attention to details. This team still has a lot of room to grow, but I think we’re on the right schedule.”
George and the uprising Pacers will enjoy a home game heavy schedule in February. Only three of their games are on the road. They host the Orlando Magic tonight as they look for their fifth-straight victory.
Rest, Free Throws Key For Duncan: Although you’ll never hear San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich complain about it, one of the most difficult things about the lockout-shortened season is the temptation to play power forward Tim Duncan big minutes every night. His presence is vital on nightly basis and Duncan is eager to be out there as much as possible, but it’s on Popovich to do what is best for the team in the long haul. That includes heavily monitoring the all-time greats’ playing time and making sure that his work load isn’t in excess of anything he can handle at 35 years of age.
If Duncan’s strong performance against the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets in back-to-back games recently is any indication, Popovich is finding the right pattern to use with him. He put up 25 points and seven rebounds in a victory against Houston, needing just 31 minutes of action to do so. Then, the following night he scored 19 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in 22 minutes. That was enough to get the W as well.
“We kept his minutes down,” Popovich said. “He didn’t play that much. As long as the minutes are low, he feels pretty good.
“He feels really good. He feels like he’s got a good balance and that’s always a good sign when he wants the ball down on the block.”
“I’m just trying to attack when I get the ball,” Duncan added. “I’ve had some good situations the last couple of games to attack and I’ve gotten to the free throw line luckily. That’s just a big part of it. It helps me get started and it helps me in feeling good, so I just need to get to the free throw line more often.”
Duncan isn’t the only Spur in need of rest. The team as a whole has been worn down somewhat by the jammed-packed schedule and the lack of depth with All-Star shooting guard Manu Ginobili out with a broken hand.
“You know, I think we had some tired legs tonight as you could tell with our shooters,” Duncan said. “Guys were worn out a little bit and it’ll be good for us. It’s a crazy season as it’s taking a lot out of people. Any rest is good rest. I don’t think we’re going to lose much in just today, as it’s good to get some rest under our belts. I know there are a lot of games coming up as well as the season we have ahead of us.”
Rest will come at a premium throughout the remainder of February as the Spurs embark on their annual rodeo road trip. This year it consists of nine-straight games away from the AT&T Center. Seven of those games are separated by just a day. They also have a back-to-back on the trip. Popovich continuing to manage everyone minutes, Duncan’s especially, properly will be critical. At 15-9 every game is important, but Popovich of all people knows that if they’re not healthy come playoff time it doesn’t matter how many regular season wins they have.
Lakers Need Minor Tweaks, Not Major Moves: There’s a clamoring in Los Angeles for the Lakers to make a major move prior to March 15th’s trading deadline. Orlando Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard is at the top of their wish list. He’s so highly regarded that some are willing to give up both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for him. However, as HOOPSWORLD’s Alex Kennedy revealed yesterday, the interest isn’t anywhere near mutual with Howard. While the Lakers are on Howard’s list of preferred destinations, Kennedy has learned that Howard would not be willing to sign a long-term extension immediately. The only place he would be willing to do so is in New Jersey with the Nets.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Lakers. Howard is hands down the best center in the league. He has no equal. However, every other team in the league that doesn’t have Howard would be more than pleased to have Gasol and Bynum like the Lakers do if they couldn’t have Howard.
In a rare road victory for the Lakers last night the twin towers dominated. Gasol had 13 points and 17 rebounds, while Bynum led the Lakers offensively with 22 points, three blocks and 10 rebounds as well. On just about every night one of them is going to have a matchup they can take advantage of. They’re one of the league’s premier post duos and what’s most promising for the Lakers is that they’re still figuring out how to best play off of each other in the new system. It takes time and they’re getting close. Moving forward with both of them, the Lakers are going to be just fine in the paint despite not having Howard.
What the Lakers really need at this point in time is a minor tweak, along the same lines of the Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown acquisitions that turned out to be so huge during their run to back-to-back titles in 2008-2010. They’re obviously in need of some help at the point guard position and there are guys like Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Ramon Sessions on the market who could be big-time difference makers for them. Some reports have the Lakers holding onto their assets right now as they wait and see what happens for Howard, but there’s a championship core already in place. Yes, Howard gives them their franchise player of the future in the post-Kobe era, but with him deadset on going to New Jersey they need to make the most of what they have now. It’s been the small, yet impactful, moves that have defined Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak’s career, and right now is the time for another one.
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