The Weekside: Paul George is back and better than ever

Oct 6, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) smiles after the game against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pacers win 115-112. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 6, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) smiles after the game against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pacers win 115-112. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

It happened 475 days ago. Paul George, going for a block in a Team USA exhibition game, shattered his leg. He landed awkwardly on the basket support, and before anyone could process the carnage he was lying on the hardwood. Fortunately for viewers at home, someone threw a towel over his shin before the cameras saw what he did.

“I’m like, ‘Why can’t I stand right now?’” Paul George later told Bleacher Report. “I look down to look at my legs, and I saw my bone. The second I saw my bone, I just lost it. I just laid flat … The pain was tough. As soon as the air hit the bone and where the open wound was, it just shot through my whole body.”

He would miss nearly all of the next season, logging token minutes off the bench in the team’s final six games, It wasn’t a real return. He seemed more like an old guy trying to get back in shape by running pickup with college kids than the All-NBA player he had been the season before while leading the Indiana Pacers to the best record in the East.

Paul George was always positive during rehab though. He said he would be back better than ever. He said his leg was literally stronger than before due to the months and months and months of non-basketball training he had done. It wasn’t just the muscles that were changed. He now also has a metal rod in his leg that will be there forever. “It’s part of me — an extra bone,” he told Bleacher Report.

The nervous laugh and hard swallow that accompanied this boast about being a little more like Wolverine gave away his inner doubt though.

Paul George
Paul George /

Paul George Is Back

In his first three games back — really back, this season — he performed poorly. Paul George hit just 15 of his first 43 shots (34.9%) as the Pacers dropped to 0-3 to begin the year. He couldn’t buy a bucket from long range, making on 2 of his 13 attempts (15.4%) from 3-point territory.

The rough start has proven to be just that though: an unmemorable blip that now seems meaningless. Because Paul George has since shaken off the rust and is now dominating every game he plays.

The Pacers are 7-2 in their nine outings since starting 0-3. And those lone two defeats have come in hard-fought, down-the-wire affairs on the road against the defending East champion Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, which beat Indiana by 1 point.

PG’s per-game averages have been off the charts in this nine-game stretch: 28.0 ppg (on 46.4% shooting), 8.9 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.6 spg. He has now scored 26 or more points in eight straight games, and in a blowout over the 76ers last night he put up 34 points, 8 boards, 4 assists, and 4 steals in the first three quarters.

With the Pacers now playing a more open, spread style of offense, he is also shooting more 3-pointers than ever. And he is making them. So far this year (even counting the horrid three-game shooting start) only Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Eric Gordon are hitting more than the 2.7 triples PG is knocking down per game. It isn’t just volume: His 42.7% accuracy from deep is 6th in the league among frequent shooters (those taking 5.0 or more 3s per game), per Basketball-Reference.

The shooting is great. The scoring is fantastic. The all-around stat lines are impressive. But the return of what made him special before the injury — his individual defense — has been the most encouraging sign.

He isn’t a menacing defender in the way that Tony Allen can be. He doesn’t exert a constant physical pressure. His best attribute is that he is relentless — he is just always … there — and never makes mistakes. His body control is uncanny and he simply stays with his man, rarely being screened due to a liquid-like ability to maneuver around picks and then mirroring his man’s every move.

PG gives ground if you dribble at him, but just slightly, using quicker-than-yours feet to seemingly go where the ball-handler is headed before he even knows and then bodying him up.

He rarely blocks shots — other than the occasional chasedown or swat out of weakside help — because he doesn’t need to. He just leaves you in a weakened state with no advantages while holding ground and looking at the dribbler like, “What do you really expect to accomplish here?”

Paul George Isn’t Playing Power Forward

Throughout the offseason, Pacers top executive Larry Bird talked about how the team would be transitioning to a new, faster style. He wanted Paul George to play at power forward. The superstar wasn’t interested, telling the media on multiple occasions that it would only be for spot minutes here and there despite what his GM and coach were saying in public.

Larry Bird isn’t one to mince words. When asked about PG’s resistance to change, The Legend was blunt: “He don’t make the decisions around here.”

Bird was wrong.

So far this year, Paul George has not been playing forward at all. The team has gone small a lot, using a spread lineup with only one big man on the floor about half the time. But when those small units are on the floor, C.J. Miles — not PG — is the one guarding the opponent’s traditional power forward. “We like him being at his best, guarding the perimeter,” said head coach Frank Vogel. “For the most part, he’s guarding 3s and being guarded by 3s.”

Paul George got his way. And he is showing that he might have been right along.

By staying at his natural position, PG has been unburdened by defending the league’s hulking forwards and instead left to do what he does best: Forcing elite wing players into taking shots they don’t want to take.

It has been a boon to the defense.

Vogel previously crafted his system around having Roy Hibbert, a 7’2″ behemoth with the discipline to jump straight up and use verticality to protect the rim. With this strategy, the Pacers built the best defense in the NBA for two straight seasons.

But now, with no more Hibbert and lots of wings and combo guards, Vogel is changing it up. The team is playing much more aggressive on the perimeter and trying to force turnovers. “In some ways, it is a philosophical change to increase our forced turnovers and ball pressure and being in passing lanes more,” said Vogel.

The result is a Pacer team that is second in the league at forcing turnovers, per, with opponents coughing the ball up on 17.8% of their possessions. They are fifth in steals with 9.6 per game.

Interestingly, however, Paul George isn’t personally getting more steals. His 1.6 per game is great, but that number is below the 1.9 steals he averaged per night during his last healthy season. Instead, he is mainly playing the same type of defense he always has and forcing his man into tough situations.

So how is the team getting so many more steals? It is in part because of George’s ability to play somewhat of a shutdown corner role. He plays his usual style — fierce without gambling — and this allow his teammates to come in an gobble up the ball.

Monta Ellis, George Hill, and C.J. Miles are averaging 1.8, 1.6, and 1.6 steals per game, respectively, while applying major pressure to ball handlers and jumping passing lanes. Neither Hill nor Miles have ever come close to those numbers. This wouldn’t be happening without Vogel’s new focus and Paul George’s ability to be arguably the best wing defender in the NBA.

The system may have changed in reality. His position may have changed rhetorically. But Paul George hasn’t changed at all.

He is just playing the same incredible defense he always has while scoring better than ever.

No Surprises

In all the biggest plays of Paul George’s career, there has been one constant.

After he hit recorded a last-second 4-point play in a regular season game against the Kings that led to a win. After he hit a game-tying 3 in the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals over LeBron James. After he blew by LeBron for his career’s signature moment, a vicious tomahawk dunk on Birdman.

It’s always similar.

The celebration isn’t particularly loud, a primal yell after the Birdman dunk notwithstanding. He is usually subdued, furrowing a brow or pointing to his chest. In the same way that his eyes couldn’t hide the doubt about his physical health while he discussed the metal rod in his leg, they also don’t allow him to mask his feelings after his incredible feats on the court.

Paul George is never shocked by his own biggest moments. This is what he expects to do every time he steps on the court. He thinks he is just as good as LeBron and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.

“Of course I just did that,” he seems to think. “What? You didn’t know?”

Right now, Paul George is keenly aware that everyone has forgotten that he belongs in that peer group. So now that he is back, he is determined to out-do the pre-injury version of himself. He needs the world to remember that he wasn’t even in his prime yet when he was making fans ooooohhh and aaaahhh during the Easter Conference finals.

So far this year, he is doing all that and more this season. Yes, Paul George is most definitely back and he is better than he ever was. And while many are now starting to remember just how good he was before the injury, Paul George never forgot.

None of this surprises him.

Around the Association

Boston Celtics

Watching old Dirk is painful enough. Please don’t make me do it while he’s wearing those jerseys. (But really the Mavs are overachieving and Dirk is doing great.)

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls shook off a wretched third quarter last night to beat the Suns. Jimmy Butler put the team on his back, scoring 14 in the fourth. He also made a game-winning block on Paul George earlier on Monday and has fueled the squad to its current four-game winning streak — despite Derrick Rose leaving the game against Indiana with injury and remaining out vs. Phoenix.

The reigning Most Improved Player is still improving.

Dallas Mavericks

Sometimes you wonder how billionaires made billions.

Detroit Pistons

As always, things are going just great in Detroit.

Golden State Warriors

One person, Danny Leroux of The Sporting News, has figured out a way that the Warriors could sign free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant this offseason. His article on the matter is aptly called, “The rest of the NBA’s nightmare could happen.”

I’m not even sure Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns could put a stop to the run of titles a Durant/Curry team would win.

Houston Rockets

I don’t know if Kevin McHale deserved to get fired or not, but the Rockets are now 1-0 since the dismissal and enjoying the often-fleeting post-firing bounce. But will they continue to try on defense and generally look like a team that wants to play basketball on a nigh-to-night basis?

Los Angeles Lakers

kobe bryant
kobe bryant /

Chart courtesy of the sadly titled Wall Street Journal article “Kobe Bryant: A Jump Shooter Who Can’t Shoot.” The 3-point attempt rate is the saddest part. Please stop, Kobe.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are a disappointing 5-6 so far on the year and can’t seem to catch a break. This team was supposed to be more fun. Let’s hope for warmer days in December … in Milwaukee … oh no.

New Orleans Pelicans

The one-win team with Anthony Davis and the winless Philadelphia 76ers are in a heated battle to see which is the worst team in the NBA. I’ve fact checked that sentence eight times and still don’t believe it’s true.

Orlando Magic

Russell Westbrook scored 43 points to go along with 9 rebounds and 8 assists in 36 minutes last night. He is not fair, and never is that more evident than when he grabs the ball and streaks down the court faster than anyone should be able to.

The craziest part? He isn’t even going all out here. He’s Halley’s comet in a jersey.

Philadelphia 76ers

Not only did the 76ers lose by 27 and commit 31 turnovers against the Pacers, but they also allowed the third-best guy named Hill on Indiana’s roster to do this.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns were destroying the Lakers so badly earlier this week that Eric Bledose couldn’t believe Byron Scott didn’t call a timeout. After a flurry of buckets, he went over to the bench to revel in the moment but had to be told to head back onto the court by his teammates since the opposing coach had, for some reason, not tried to forestall the onslaught.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings looked poised to fire a coach or trade away an All-NBA talent like two weeks ago. Now they have won three of their last four games, and Rajon Rondo is not only back from the dead but seemingly recording a triple-double every night. The lesson here is that sometimes you just have to argue with teammates and hate your coach to right the ship, I guess.

San Antonio Spurs

That’s a lot of wins.

Toronto Raptors

Dunk of the year so far and it’s not close.

Might not be in May either. Go easy on ’em, DeMar.

Utah Jazz

What DeRozan did to the Jazz was impossible, but Trevor Booker of Utah also had a nice trick up his sleeves.

One Night in November

An 82-game season is unnecessary. There are two reasons I think this cannot be argued with.

First is the fact that I believe it is detrimental to player health. The torque, force, and strain put on these players bodies is just immense. This isn’t the 1980s when the league had a few physical anamolies (Jordan, Karl Malone, Dominique, Barkley, others) but was largely filled with tall people. Now, almost everyone can jump so high and move so quickly that every possession is much more intense than the game used to be.

The second fact is that we simply don’t need 82 games to achieve the goal of competition: Deciding which team is the best. There is something to be said for teams getting a long schedule to fully gel and find themselves, but more than 50% of the league makes the playoffs. And the playoffs, with the beauty of the 7-game series, almost always give the world an accurate portrayal of which team is the best.

So if you admit that second fact and you at least somewhat believe that the first fact might be occurring, then the only sensible conclusion is that we don’t need 82 games.

Nights like Wednesday, however, make me reconsider.

There were 10 games on the schedule, with two-thirds of the NBA’s teams in action, and it seems like all of them produced bonkers results, highlights, and down-to-the-buzzer excitement. There were the ludicrous crossovers in the Pacers games, Corey Brewer’s ridiculous running 3 on the day his coach got fired, the DeMar DeRozan dunk, Russell Westbrook being Russell Westrbrook, plus way more.

But nothing was better than the finish to the Wolves/Magic overtime thriller, which is now on the shortlist for game of the season so far.

Though plagued by some odd decision making and quite a bit of luck in the outcome, the whole game was a nice if at times frustrating affair. It was more March Madness than basketball clinic. That is the the joy of this random regular season nights of chaos though. There is no rhyme or reason to the results — just off-the-wall plays that defy explanation.

And these were the best four plays late in the action.

Elfrid Payton’s Drive

Elfrid Payton scored a career-high 24 points — with 20 of those coming in the paint. While attacking the rim without tire, he added 6 assists, 7 rebounds, and 1 fantastic head of hair. Nothing he did was better than this drive in overtime to tie the game at 101 with 50 seconds left. While his teammates big shot (we’ll get to that) was more critical, this drive set up the win.

Andrew Wiggins Game-Tying Bucket

Just wow. The spin. The poise. The ease. He’s 20 years old.

Karl Anthony-Towns’ Block

The best part of this out-of-nowhere, insane block from Towns is Tobias Harris’ reaction. He immediately goes over to the official and he knows, and I know, and you know that this wasn’t a foul. Instead, he merely seems to need someone to talk to. He’s not asking for a call so much as he is just looking for a fried who will agree with him that Karl Anthony-Towns is in no way, shape, or form fair.

Never Google 3-Pointer

Just onions. Evan Fournier. Keen Timberwolves fans may notice that these last five points — the Elfrid drive and this 3 — all came against Tayshaun Prince. Who may be too old to still be on an NBA court in overtime. Regardless, Payton and Never Google scored all 11 of Orlando’s points in the extra time.

Words With Friends

This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves are here ahead of schedule
by Evans Clinchy, Hardwood Paroxysm

Even for the absolute best players in the game, it generally takes a little time for them to come around. LeBron James has won six conference titles and goes deep in the playoffs every single year, but even he went 35-47 as a rookie. Kevin Durant is legit one of the greatest shooters who ever lived, but even he went 29 percent from 3 in his first season. These things happen. They’re accepted. Just about no one arrives in the NBA primed for instant success; we all understand that and are OK with it. It’s all the more impressive, therefore, when a raw young kid leaps from college to the NBA and finds immediate success. Let’s talk about Karl-Anthony Towns.

2. Basketball and Colonialism in Mozambique
by Willy Raedy, Hardwood Paroxysm

Earlier in the day, a very enterprising and friendly young man approached us on the pier, hoping to sell us bracelets depicting the Mozambican flag, and told us about a pickup game near the school. He was extremely well dressed with pressed khakis, a button-down shirt, and big aviator sunglasses. The fact that he could pull this off while I was sweating through my swim trunks seemed impossible, but I would soon learn that doing the impossible was a regular part of Mozambican life. We found the court no problem. It’s full length and the keys are painted in the angled international style with faded red paint. One hoop leans a bit off kilter and the rim is bent forwards. We would learn later that there had been a fight between the basketball and soccer players about who got to use the court — on a basketball court, I might add — and the soccer players eventually got mad and tore the hoop down. It was only by sheer chance that they were able to fix it when a metal working crew from the capital came to the island on a construction job.

3. Andre Drummond cares about winning, not stats — although his are impressive
by Arash Markazi, ESPN

Drummond is off to a historic start this season, averaging 18.5 points and 19 rebounds per game. He is the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 to record at least 185 points and 190 rebounds through the first 10 games of a season. He is also the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1970-71 to average at least 20 points and 20 rebounds through the first six games of a season. “It’s a cool accomplishment, but I’d rather win games,” Drummond said. “That’s all I want to do — win games. Stats will come. That’s the player I am. But I would rather win games. It looks cool if you’re averaging 20 and 20, but if you’re losing games, it’s not the same feeling.”

4. How I Became ‘Muggsy’
by Muggsy Bogues, The Players’ Tribune

I’ve always been the smallest guy on the court. Every age group, always the smallest. As I got older, everyone kept growing except me. Eventually I realized my parents were also pretty short, so I wasn’t going to get much taller. So from an early age, size became a motivating factor. Being short made me fearless as a player, set out to prove everyone wrong. I let everyone I guarded know they would always feel my presence. Getting up underneath them, never letting them relax. They even became fearful just to dribble, because I could be so disruptive.

5. Kristaps Porzingis Can’t Be Trusted to Give Himself a Nickname
by Jack Moore, GQ

"Porzingis immediately turned down “Zinger,” “Porzingod,” and “Godzingis”? And not only that, he said he liked “KP” or “KP6,” which are the most boring, derivative, bullshit nicknames I can imagine? This cannot stand. Personally, I love “Porzingod” and “Godzingis,” but I can imagine someone being wary of the religious imagery. But “Zinger”? That’s incredible. That sounds like a nickname from the 1940s."

What to Watch For

The Warriors and Clippers will square off tonight in a Western Conference heavyweight battle.

It should be a walkover win for the Warriors — isn’t every game? — but the Clippers have been formidable at home despite their middling overall record. They are 5-1 so far in Los Angeles, beating the Grizzlies and Pistons in their last two home games.

Then again, you know that one loss? It was to Golden State, which is 5-0 on the road and 12-0 at home and might go 82-0 this year because who is stopping them ever again?

The team’s impeccable ball movement and shooting from last year has only gotten better. Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus drummed up this chart to show just how dominant the offense is.

dubs /

In layman’s terms, this shows that the Warriors record assists on a higher percentage of their baskets than any other team, nearly two-thirds of their hoops (63%) compared to the NBA average of about half (51%).

They are also scoring 110 points per 100 possessions and only allowing 95. That leads to a net of 15 points per 100 — which is absolutely bananas.

And they’ve been doing this against whoever is on their schedule by happenstance.

Tonight, however, they face the Clippers.

The Clippers are the team that most drew the ire of Steph Curry and his teammates this summer when coach Doc River (somewhat out of context) called their championship run lucky (due to the lack of injuries that sunk some other contenders like the Thunder). Overblown or not, out-of-context or not, it doesn’t matter. The Warriors don’t care for the Clippers and it goes back beyond this summer, and beyond “Cool story, Glenn.”

Golden State angry and headed to Los Angeles. Pray for the Clippers.