Paul George, a man for all duties
With a 3-1 series lead, Pacers look for close out of Knicks and rematch with Heat
INDIANAPOLIS -- Because of their exposure and their hometown, it's so tempting to focus on the cratering Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and the once mighty New York Knicks offense as they keep weakly losing against the Indiana Pacers.
Not only is that unfair, it's also missing the point. The 3-1 series lead the Pacers have established after Tuesday's 93-82 win is more about the national coming out party for Paul George than anything else.
The third-year wing is showing off a defensive skill set and confidence that is beyond his years. He's doing so on a huge stage while facing an immense challenge of dealing with the NBA scoring champ who was having the best season of his career.
George's lockdown of Anthony has been the crux of this series, the center point of a Pacers' masterpiece defensive scheme that has arrested the once heavily-favored Knicks and left them pointing fingers at each other and cursing on national television.
This has already been a leap season for George as he made his first All-Star appearance in February. But in the playoffs he's taken it to another level, and it's already tempting to consider how he'd handle the assignment of LeBron James in what is shaping up to be the likely Eastern Conference finals matchup.
"I'm fully confident in myself, I knew (Anthony) wasn't just going to have his way," George said. "I think I can match up with any wing, shooting guard or point guard in this league."
The numbers illustrate confidence. According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, Anthony is shooting 18-of-57 (32 percent) with George on him in the series, his length and quickness preventing Anthony from getting time or space to execute as he's used to.
It's gotten to the point where you can visibly see Anthony rushing his shots when he gets any hint of separation from George, knowing he doesn't have his preferred time. And this from a player who has one of the quickest releases in the league. George is just all over him.
A Knicks fan might counter that Anthony is just in a slump, like the self-deprecating Smith, and it really isn't about who's guarding him. Frankly, that's just not a sound position if you're actually taking the chance to watch what George -- who is listed at 6-foot-8 because that's how tall he was as a rookie (though it's an open secret he's grown to 6-foot-10) -- is doing to disrupt Anthony's airspace, floor space and vision.
But if you need statistical evidence, here it is. When any of the other Pacers are guarding him, Anthony is shooting 20-of-36 (56 percent). During Game 4, Anthony was 4-of-16 with George on him and 5-of-7 facing anyone else.
By the way, ESPN Stats & Information says Smith is 3-of-16 (19 percent) when George is on him and 15-of-48 (32 percent) when other Pacers, usually Lance Stephenson, are on him.
Now, it's not just George. The Pacers back up their perimeter defenders by dropping their big men in the paint and Roy Hibbert, David West and Ian Mahinmi are cutting off Anthony's driving lanes. The Pacers have nearly perfected the ability to defend without fouling by trying to follow the rules and jump straight up with their arms straight up, not even going for blocked shots per se.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel calls the technique "earning a non-call," even if it might irritate some fans who don't know the rules when they see Anthony run into players around the rim and not get the whistle. Anthony is averaging about two fewer free throws per game than usual.
So even when Anthony beats George off the dribble or slips around a pick, he's got Pacers in his face and blocking the rim. It's that scheme that so frustrated Tyson Chandler after Game 3 that he complained about the lack of passing in the offense, which kicked off a minor pre-Game 4 maelstrom that required a meeting to calm nerves.
"Our offense has been s---ty," Anthony said of Chandler's comments after Game 4. "(Chandler) has the right to say that."
That's true, it has. The Knicks are averaging 98 points per 100 possesions in the series, about 11 points less than they did in the regular season. But George's defense has also been magnificent.
George, who had 14 rebounds Tuesday, is also averaging eight rebounds, five assists and two steals in the series. He's leading the Pacers in scoring at 17.8 points a game, though that's been his weakest spot as he's shot just 35 percent.
Vogel believes 43 minutes a game defending Anthony and Smith is dragging him down at the offensive end. In truth, shooting percentage is George's weak spot: he shot just 42 percent during the season. It's where he really needs to improve.
But defensively, he's already elite. With his responsibilities and minute load, he's already one of the league's best perimeter defenders. The league's coaches named him second team All-Defense this week. If he keeps this up, you can bet he'll get promoted to first team next year.
"He's got length and good feet and he's never really out of position even when he gets beat he's in the rear view contesting the shot," West said about George. "Melo is the best 1-on-1 player in the league, he can get shots from anywhere and he can make shots from anywhere. And PG embraces that challenge."
Last season in this round of the playoffs, George played a supporting role in helping the Pacers get a 2-1 series lead on the Miami Heat. Then he and his teammates were overwhelmed by an onslaught from James and Dwyane Wade in the final three games as the Heat blew by them with a staggering display of offense.
George, who shared the wing defensive duties with Danny Granger, just wasn't equipped yet to handle such a test.
Facing Anthony in this series was his first real chance to make up for that letdown. So far his display of improvement and poise has been breathtaking. And it's got him on the verge of earning another shot at James and the Heat, a mission that's been on the Pacers minds for a year now.
"I think everyone going through that in this locker room had a taste of (last year)," George said. "I have that in the back of my mind, that's just some stuff that you just can't let go ... If the opportunity presents itself, we'll all be up for it. If we advance and (the Heat) advance, we'll be happy for that matchup."