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NBA Sunday: Paul George is the X-Factor

The Pacers are 11-2 since February 1, without Paul George. How much better can they be with him?

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In the National Basketball Association, the charge toward the playoffs is often dominated by conversations about “What if?”

What if the Golden State Warriors are for real?

What if Kevin Durant is 100 percent healthy?

What if Derrick Rose is finished?

Yet still, almost eight months after the Indiana Pacers’ 2014-15 season was thought to have ended, it is Paul George who has emerged as the biggest “What if?” of them all.

But the question as it relates to George is not what could have happened for the Pacers this season had he not suffered the gruesome compound leg fraction that has kept him out of action, but what could be in store for the Pacers once he is able to return?

* * *

The sage. The emotional leader. The old man of the gang; he is the 34-year-old David West.

In tight moments, the Pacers have traditionally depended on West to make big plays. This time was no exception.

West received the basketball on the left box, isolated against Chris Bosh. Over the past few years, while the Pacers were competing with the Miami HEAT for the right to represent the Eastern Confernece in the NBA Finals, this has become a familiar scenario.

Except, this time, there were no national television cameras around.

There was no Lance Stephenson, no LeBron James and, of course, no Paul George.

It was January 23 and the Pacers brought their baggage to South Beach. For the Pacers, the 44 games that preceded this one was a real-life game of musical chairs, with key members of the team’s core being scuttled into and out of the lineup.

Yes, they brought their baggage with them. They were a team that had doubts and one that had gotten away from its identity. They were a team that entered play on this night with its third six-game losing streak of the season after having lost as many as four straight just once over the previous two seasons combined.

So when West saw Bosh in front of him, he wasn’t thinking about the NBA Finals or the elusive championship that he has been fighting for—he was just thinking about stopping the bleeding.

West pump-faked and dribbled left, eluding Bosh and making his way into the restricted area. As Chris Andersen closed in to contest what seemed to be a rim attempt, West found the cutting Ian Mahinmi.

In a game where the Pacers trailed by as many as 20 points in the second half, they fought valiantly and found themselves now within three points with about 100 seconds remaining in the competition.

Mahinmi dropped in the two-footer and the Pacers found themselves separated by a single point, but alas, they could get no closer.

C.J. Watson would miss the game-tying 20-footer at the buzzer, and the Pacers, despite the spirited rally, tasted defeat for the seventh consecutive time.

They lost the game, but in the moments immediately following, they found something else.

As George Hill put his two hands on top of his head and walked away from his bench, Rodney Stuckey stood outside of the three-point arc with both arms raised in the air. West slapped his hands together and he began the long walk back to the visitor’s locker room at Miami’s American Airlines Arena.

It was a tough loss, but simultaneously, it was something else.

For the Pacers, it was the turning point of their season.

* * *

Since late January, everything has changed.

The Pacers will enter play on March 8 having gone 13-4 since that loss and have not lost back-to-back games since.

Even more impressively, the Pacers, at 11-2, have been the best team in the league since February 1. Over that stretch, they have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers twice, the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls.

And yes, they have done all of this without Paul George, their best player.

On August 1, when George suffered a horrific compound leg fracture, for him, playing this season seemed a long shot. Losing George after losing Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets made qualifying for the playoffs a pipe dream.

And yes, when you are head coach Frank Vogel and looking at the standings in late January and seeing that your team is 15 games below .500, you evaluate. When you are almost as far outside of the playoff race as the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves, it is easy to lose hope.

But somehow, for Vogel, it has been even easier to fight.

“Yes, I thought there was a chance,” he said when asked if he ever stopped believing his team could make a run.

“When you’re 15 games under .500, we’re all scratching our heads, not really believing that we were that far back, but we always had the mindset that we wanted to weather the storm and stay close enough, stay within reach and try to get better each month so that if we got healthy and if the new guys came in and jelled the way we thought they could, that we could go on a run late in the season.”

That is exactly what the Pacers have done.

With West leading the charge on the floor and in the locker room, the Pacers never once stopped believing that they were one of the elite teams in the league, much less the lowly Eastern Conference. As the years have passed, West and Vogel have grown together, both as leaders, both needing each other, so it comes as no surprise to hear West and his coach essentially speak with the same tongue and think with the same brain.

West remembered the final seconds of the loss at the HEAT—the night it all turned around.

“Coach just kept us confident, he kept us positive,” West said of his coach’s demeanor in the aftermath of the loss.

“I do remember that,” West recalled. “He came to us and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re 15 games under .500,’ and that was sort of, I think, a low point for him.”

As low as it may have been, the Pacers have once again risen.

Now, as the team gets its collective health, a familiar face is mulling about the locker room. Of course, none of his teammates want to publicly put any pressure on George by intimating that he will be the savior of their season or help them pull off a shocking first round upset over the likes of the Atlanta Hawks or the Chicago Bulls, but anyone that has been around these Pacers over the past few weeks can attest, there is an aura of confidence about this team.

“We gotta focus on everybody who’s here right now and try to push him along the way and not try to put too much of a load on him,” George Hill said when asked about the potential return of George.

But even still, Hill couldn’t hold back when asked what George would add to the team if he were able to return, even if at a fraction of himself.

“He’s an All-Star, he’s the focal point of this team, he’s what we build everything around,” Hill said. “He’s gonna add the experience, the toughness, the leadership, [be] the go to guy and bring the passion on the defensive end.

“What he brings and just him being the All-Star caliber player he is, it speaks for itself.”

Those are sentiments that center Roy Hibbert agrees with, as well.

“With Paul, whatever he can bring to the table, we will accept it,” Hibbert said.

“We know it will be tough for him to get back to where he was right away, so we’ll be patient and guys see him working hard, so whatever he can bring, we would definitely appreciate it.”

Moving forward, the immediate question should be to what extent George will improve the Pacers and add to the team that they have become in his stead.

“Obviously, we want to get him back, but we want him to be healthy and work at his own speed,” West said. “Now, we gotta take care of business while he’s out. When he’s ready to go, he’ll get back out there and we’ll welcome him with open arms.”

Without question, George will be just as excited to make his return.

He was recently quoted as saying that he believes he can be the “missing piece” for the Pacers and that if he can return to the court and to form for the playoffs, that, for the Pacers, “the story will write itself.”

To a man, the Pacers believe that they are far better than an eighth seed and so long as the club is healthy, it would be difficult to argue with a core of players that won 56 games just last season.

That has been West’s message to his teammates.

“George missed 30-something games, I missed the first month of the year, Roy’s been out, Ian’s been out, Stuck’s been out, C.J. Miles has been out, we’ve been hit with a lot of injuries,” West said. “But finally, I think we’re past that and hopefully, we just keep improving.”

And with or without George, that has been what Vogel has been preaching to his club over the course of the past six weeks.

It is difficult to argue with the results.

* * *

As the final quarter of the season gets underway, there seem to be five teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the conference. The Pacers are joined by the HEAT, Hornets, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets as teams that will enter play on March 9 within two games of the seventh seed.

At this point, it is difficult to not keep a close eye on the standings if you’re Coach Vogel.

“I watch ’em,” Vogel admitted. “The guys don’t watch them that much and that’s probably good. I like the chase, I like that every win or loss can move you two or three spots in the standings. I think it brings a good, healthy sense of urgency to every game.”

“Coach keeps us abreast of what’s going on there, games behind and all that other stuff,” West said. “We just try to focus on the game that’s in front of us and the game that’s on the schedule for that night… We let coach worry about the standings and stuff like that.”

And as far as what the Pacers need to continue rising?

Just consistency.

“The message is always the same,” West said, whether the Pacers lose six games in a row or win six games in a row.

“Just stay steady, just believe in one another, remain confident and we’ll see what happens.”

In the interim, the Pacers will continue along about their business, preparing meticulously for every matchup that, as coach Vogel puts it, has a healthy sense of urgency about it.

With their improving health and the imminent return of Paul George, these Pacers, these tough, gritty Pacers, they can look at the hole they once found themselves in and actually contemplate having fully dug themselves out.

And with George back among them, the Pacers can continue to dream of what it would be like to play the underdog and have an opportunity to compete for the championship that has eluded them.

What if the Pacers qualify for the playoffs?

What if Paul George is able to contribute?

What if, for the 2014-15 Pacers, the best is yet to come?

What if, indeed. The NBA season is full of them.

But for a team that was left for dead twice over—the first time before the season had begun—the “What if?” of Paul George is certainly one of the more intriguing.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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