The Weekside

Rebuilt and ready to lead, Paul George is exactly what Team USA needs

by Jared Wade

There are lots of people saying that America isn’t great anymore. There’s something going on with Team USA’s defense, many said last week, and if it doesn’t improve then this could become another embarrassing, gold-less Olympics for the men’s basketball team.

Paul George has other ideas.

Paul George is in Brazil to make Team USA great again.

He came off the bench, again, in the team’s win over Argentina yesterday. It’s a role unbefitting of George’s talent, with the general consensus being is, at this point, a better all-around basketball player than Carmelo Anthony. And as important as shooting can be, it’s hard to make an argument for starting Klay Thompson over PG right now.

But even in a reserve role, George was ready to check in and change the game. “I knew I could give a lot of energy and really just be a pest on the defensive end,” he said after the game.

After some early fouls for Carmelo, and with the United States down 12-7, George checked in. His defense immediately paid dividends. He picked off a pass and started a fast break that led to a Kevin Durant 3-pointer. Thirty seconds later he handled the finishing work himself, robbing another pass at the top of the key and running out for a dunk. With two steals in three minutes, the Indiana Pacers superstar had given Team USA a spark — and all the momentum.

They would never lose it again.

More suffocating Paul George defense led to other turnovers that didn’t make it into his boxscore line. But his ongoing effort and focus were critical to the United States busting out a 38-8 run that effectively ended the game in the first half. The rest of the roster followed his lead, especially Jimmy Butler. Also of note during the run: Paul George’s baseline cut for a layup, a hand-off play with Draymond Green that ended in a George triple, and a catch-and-shoot midrange jumper.

Kevin Durant also put on the type of classic KD scoring outburst that few humans who have ever lived can muster. That was obviously key to the blowout as well. But the defensive concerns — against Argentina and in the three previous games — are what looked like a potential downfall for Team USA. In years past, when defenders were flying around and live-ball turnovers came often, the Americans literally stole the opposition’s will to fight.

So while it was huge that Durant was being uniquely Durant-like again — his embarrassment of Andrés Nocioni with a Euro-step finish was legendary — the defensive turnaround was the bigger factor. Once Team USA has taken a soul, the points just come. It’s why the final box score is generally so irrelevant in these affairs. The floodgates open and the shots, no matter the degree of difficulty or flow within the offense, start to fall. It all starts with the type of tenacious defense that no other nation can summon.

It was PG who got this squad once again looking Dreamy.

And for anyone into Olympic boxscores, Paul George’s line also wasn’t too shabby: 17 points, eight rebounds, three steals, and three blocks in 21 minutes off the bench. “We knew we had to raise our level,” George said. “How we were playing wasn’t good enough. I thought we did a great job defensively of getting stops, forcing turnovers, getting out on the fast break. That’s where our game has been lost: the fast-break game.”

Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It was a triumphant performance for any player. It was certainly even more satisfying for someone who nearly saw his career derailed in a Team USA jersey. To be sure, Paul George’s compound fracture — when two shin bones snapped and broke through his skin — is one of the worst basketball injuries ever filmed.

Two years later, he’s not merely back; he’s better than ever. And with LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Chris Paul staying stateside, this time Paul George is not just leading with his play, but off the court, too.

It was Paul George speaking the loudest last week when Team USA was squeaking by. After a three-point win over Serbia, via Sam Amick of USA Today, PG said, “We can’t continue to keep playing like this.” The biggest issue, he said, was that the team was playing too much iso-ball and not trusting one another. “We’re still scoring 100 points taking one-on-five shots, but we’re too good for that,” said George.

He followed up that talk with on-court effort and dominance against Argentina. If this kind of all-areas leadership continues apace, George will make that next step, reaching the highest levels of the NBA where he believes he belongs.

Indiana Pacers fans should be delighted by what they’re seeing.

Even better, an Olympics bump — the phenomenon of players often thriving in the NBA the year after winning gold — might be awaiting a guy whose best two months ever have both come in November.

Last year, in his first November after returning from injury, George won Eastern Conference Player of the Month while averaging 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. He also shot 49 percent from 3-point range while hitting 3.8 triples per night. It was hard to argue anybody, outside of Steph Curry, played better over that 30-day stretch.

This was an upgrade to his play in November 2013, when he followed up leading the Pacer to the Eastern Conference finals earlier that year with monthly per-game averages of 23 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 47.2 percent shooting. Those numbers pale in comparison to PG’s later highs — but he was nearly as impressive while sharing the load with more talented players.

The November-over-November jump also speaks to his general evolution.

Paul George told everyone he was getting better during his year-long, injury-imposed sabbatical. He was able to watch the game more, he said, and work on his shooting since he couldn’t run for so long. He got more confident with the ball and studied the game.

Many people said he might not ever be the same.

But they were wrong. So very, very wrong.

Who knows what fans in Indiana are in store for, when the guy who’s donned a Pacers hat all summer with Team USA returns to suit up for Indiana?

If you listen a little bit on the Twitter tubes, you’ll see a growing faction of folks suggesting Paul George may be a good Vegas bet to win the MVP. The rationale: His odds return a lot money, the Pacers have a solid shot to finish second in the East, and some of the more-obvious choices are less likely to win it than the betting public realizes.

So if Steph Curry and Kevin Durant split the Golden State Warriors vote while LeBron James uses the regular season as a title-defense warmup, why not PG? In at least one sports book, his 22-to-1 odds are the same as Blake Griffin, and lower than seven other players.

Even with some reasonable logic attached, that seemed a little silly at first. But after watching George come off the bench to send Argentina’s golden generation into retirement? Maybe it isn’t downright ludicrous.

“We got our swagger back,” said Paul George after the win.

He was talking, of course, about Team USA in this tournament. But the sentiment is just as applicable to George himself, who rebuilt his leg, put the red, white, and blue jersey back on, and is poised to fly home with gold.

Paul George’s last Team USA experience took him to lows he never thought possible. This time around, a summer’s journey could find this humble superstar soaring to heights he only ever dreamed of.

Jared Wade is columnist at FanSided and editor of 8 Points, 9 Seconds. Follow him on Twitter @Jared_Wade.