Paul George was undoubtedly the breakout star of 2013. He made his first All-Star Game and won the ever-confusing Most Improved Player award. Perhaps most impressive of all, George went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals, guarding the King on nearly every possession while carrying the load for the Pacers on offense.
As you well know, George took another step forward in 2014, achieving starter-status in the All-Star Game while bumping his scoring average up by nearly four points per game (17.7 to 21.4). Of course, he struggled big time in the latter part of the season, coinciding with the Pacers’ slide from the league’s elite to major question mark, and his shooting slumped as he presumably wore down under heavy minutes and a massive responsibility burden.
Now 12 games into the 2014 playoffs, no one knows what to make of this Indiana team. They’re 3-4 at home, despite publicly stating all season how important getting home-court advantage was. In Game 5 against Washington, the Pacers had a chance to close out the series at home. Instead, they got blasted by the Wizards, losing the rebounding battle by an unfathomable 39 boards and giving an effort more fitting for a Tuesday night in February than one in mid-May.
But overlooked in the Pacers’ maddening struggles has been George’s continued ascension. After putting up 19.2 points per game in last year’s playoffs, George is up to 22.8 in this year’s postseason. Despite shooting a nearly identical percentage from the field (43.0 last year, 43.5 this year), George has managed to bump his effective field goal percentage (taking into account twos and threes) from .491 to .515 and true shooting percentage (factoring in twos, threes and free throws) from .548 to .580 from last year’s playoffs. So while his inefficient mid-range game is still prevalent - he’s hitting 26.8 percent of his mid-range shots in the playoffs, per NBA.com - he’ s clearly stepped it up elsewhere.
A clear sign that George has entered the superstar stratosphere is his skyrocketing free throw rate. Throughout the playoffs, he’s had success when attacking the rim, converting better than 75 percent of his shots there, according to NBA.com. Even better, just like his superstar brethren, he’s getting calls. George has upped his free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) to .400, up from .341 in the regular season. While that’s down from last postseason, and still below the likes of James and Kevin Durant, he’s right there with the many of the other stars of this crazy postseason. The fact that he’s converting nearly 84 percent from the line, up 11 percent from last season, is icing on the cake.
George has become even more of a threat from long range in the postseason. After performing right around league average during the regular season (36 percent), George has been razor sharp from deep in the Pacers’ postseason run. He’s knocking down 43.2 percent of his triples on a whopping 6.2 attempts per game. He’s getting the looks in a variety of ways, too: spotting up, coming off screens, pulling up off the dribble and even popping out after setting a screen for a ball handler.
Washington hasn’t completely lost track of George behind the arc as often as the Hawks did in the first round, but that hasn’t slowed him down one bit. In fact, George is blistering hot against the Wizards, hitting 48.1 percent of his treys.
There is one point of concern with George in these playoffs - he’s been a different player in wins than in losses.
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Except for his three-point shooting, which remains steady in losses, George goes from a star to middling depending on the game’s result. Is his play the root of Pacers’ losses, or just a symptom of team-wide poor play? In the Pacers’ five losses so far this postseason, there’s only been one instance - Game 5 against Atlanta - where you could say he played well in a losing effort, so it’s not like the Pacers are losing in spite of massive efforts by PG.
In losses, George’s percentage of assisted three-pointers made drops to 83 percent, down from 90 percent in wins. That’s a symptom of stilted ball movement that the Pacers often face that’s even more exaggerated when they’re floundering, but few other statistics point to other causes for George’s decline. Put simply, the Pacers need George to play well to have a chance.
What version of George are the Pacers going to get on Thursday in their second chance at closing out the Wizards? Their fate depends on it.