Although his numbers are down in a couple of statistical categories this season, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George was named to his fourth All-Star game last week by NBA coaches. By no means does that mean he doesn’t deserve to be an All-Star, it’s rather an indication on how he struggled at the beginning of the season.
George missed seven games earlier this season due to various injuries. He missed six games with a sore left ankle and one game due to a sore lower back. It’s no secret that George is the Pacers’ best player, and much of their success depends on well he plays. Case in point: the Pacers went 3-4 during those seven games he missed.
With a new coach in Nate McMillan in charge this season, it was important for the Pacers to quickly build their team chemistry. In addition to McMillan, the team also added several new players like Al Jefferson, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin. The results early in the season didn’t go as the Pacers planned, and they were 16-18 at the end of December.
For George as a competitor, missing those games was extremely tough for him as he was left helpless to his team on the sidelines.
“It was really tough because we weren’t playing well to begin with when I went out,” George said. “Then to capitalize on that, to sit out those games where we needed that chemistry [and] we needed those games to gel. It sucked but I had to do what was best. It was better for me to miss a couple games as opposed to trying to continue on, playing on it and messing around and missing more than I did. I think we did a great job of approaching it.”
While the start of the 2016-17 season didn’t quite go as planned for the Pacers, they have improved significantly since then. Once the calendar flipped over to 2017, they have played like one of the best teams in the league. The Pacers went 9-4 during the month of January, which was the fifth-best winning percentage in the league. In addition, they shot 50 percent from the field (second in the NBA), 39.4 percent from three-point range (fifth) and had the sixth-best offensive rating.
Perhaps the biggest key for the Pacers recently has been George’s impact on the games. He’s averaging 22.6 points, six rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game on the season, but averaged 24.5 points per game and shot 42.3 percent from three-point range in January. Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Orlando Magic, George had scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games, tying the longest streak of consecutive games with at least 30 points in his career.
One indication that George appears to be back to his old form was a dunk he threw down on Sunday against the Houston Rockets. He received the ball at the top of the key, dribbled to his left, blew by Trevor Ariza and then met Clint Capela at the rim to finish the dunk. The arena reacted as if it were a dunk straight out of a Slam Dunk Contest and the team was immediately ignited.
Does he think he’s back to his old self?
“I’m getting to it,” George said. “With me, it was just dealing with injuries. Having to work through it with still having the pressure of being the guy for us – it took a toll on me mentally, emotionally [and] physically. It’s probably that moment starting the season [that] was probably the lowest point in this season so far. We’re playing well [now], I’m getting healthier by the game [and] now it’s just staying healthy.”
George’s response to the question sheds some light on what players go through when they’re injured. During significant injuries in which a player misses an extended period time, some have said they begin to question their ability or feel down on themselves. While George only missed seven games, it’s clear that he felt helpless as he could only watch his team play on without him. As he continues to get healthier and improves his play on the court, his teammates are taking notice as well.
“He’s just being assertive, getting to where he wants to be [and] getting his confidence,” teammate C.J. Miles said. “I wouldn’t say he lacks confidence, but his confidence is through the roof now because he’s been able to do the things he wants to do. Understanding the way people are playing him, trying to be physical and things like that, he’s played through it. He’s figured out how to find a balance getting himself to the line, mixing up his spots, posting, pick and rolls, all thing things, and trusting us.”
Given his rough start to the season, it almost makes his All-Star nod this year feel that much more impressive. If you had told George during the time he was injured that he’d eventually be selected as an All-Star reserve, he likely would have taken it. There were arguments that could have been made for other players in his spot, but he ultimately earned the nod and his resume this season seems to be worthy of the selection.
“To be an All-Star and have that status in this league, it’s obviously amazing,” George said. “Again, more so this year, because this has been a rough year; it’s been a tough start for me. For me to still gain respect of coaches around the league, I’ve been blessed.”
The Pacers are rolling now, winning four straight with games against the Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons on the horizon. After sitting out of the playoff picture for much of the first two months of the season, they’re now in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and appear to be gunning for a higher position.
With George playing at an All-Star level now, the Pacers could be a dangerous team as the season winds down.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.