Pacers ready to challenge Bulls for division title
INDIANAPOLIS — In the wake of the preseason injury to small forward Danny Granger — coincidentally, his last contest was an exhibition game against the Bulls on Notre Dame’s campus — Indiana struggled out of the gate this season without its leading scorer over the past five seasons.
Then, swingman Paul George, once thought to be a defensive specialist with offensive potential down the road, emerged as the team’s go-to guy. That helped ease the burden off center Roy Hibbert, coming off an All-Star campaign and veteran power forward David West, still only a year removed from an ACL injury.
George has become the Pacers’ alpha dog, helping them stay in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference — something they were expected to do — particularly with the Bulls missing Derrick Rose to begin the season.
Now, while the Bulls haven’t exactly sunk to the depths of the Central Division, Indiana has certainly proved that they’re at least a worthy foe.
Much of that is based on the development of George, an athletic two-way player with the ability to get to the basket, score in transition, finish at the rim, knock down outside jumpers and defend a variety of players.
“Each year, he’s gotten significantly better. It’s a credit to him. Probably the biggest improvement has been his confidence in his shot,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to play him for his shot, the drive, the post. Terrific defender, guards multiple positions. He’s earned his way. He’s very deserving of being an All-Star.”
Taj Gibson, a friend and offseason workout partner of George, added: “That’s my guy. We hang out a lot in L.A. I go to his crib, his house, his pad in L.A. a lot. That’s a real good friend of mine. He’s doing a phenomenal job. I’ve told him that. It’s time for him to step up. He’s been stepping up big for his team and he’s an All-Star now.”
George torched the Bulls for 34 points in a November win over the Bulls at the United Center, so the third-year player knows he’ll get a lot of attention in Monday’s rematch.
“Well, I know they deny the ball. They really deny a lot of the reversal and a lot of our offense goes through moving the ball form side to side, so I think that will probably be the biggest thing that I will have to adjust to, is getting open to catch the ball first,” he said. “From there it’s just playing through the team, playing through the game and trying to find spots where I can free myself and get aggressive.
“Really, just continue to keep working. It’s good to go through this phase now, to really find out ways to score and be assertive throughout the game,” George continued, expanding about how teams have responded to him being the Pacers’ new No. 1 option. “It’s been tough. It’s getting more and more hard to get free, and get shots off, but again, it’s good to go through it right now.”
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel added: “He hit a lot of tough shots in that game. They played great defense on him and he still hit some tough shots. I don’t think they’ll double-team him, per se, more than usual because we’re not just a post-isolation team with Paul; he gets a lot of stuff off movement. I just think they’ll have a greater disposition and alertness to him.
“So far, really well. Surprisingly well and I don’t think the increased defensive attention has really begun yet,” he continued. “He’s just recently become an All-Star and I think from now until the end of the season is when he’s going to see the biggest increased defensive strategy.”
One caveat to George’s success is the fact that he’s been playing his more natural small forward position compared to shooting guard, where he played when Granger was in the lineup, though George and Vogel both believe Granger’s return won’t affect the team’s chemistry.
“Our twos and threes are about the same position, so I think it will benefit either one of those guys, just from the standpoint of not every team in the league—most teams in the league, actually—don’t have two great wing defenders, so now one of those guys is going to have a weaker defender on him at the wing spot,” Vogel insisted. “Whoever that is will gain the advantage. It’s not necessarily going to be Paul each night.”
George concurred: “Well, hopefully [it’s] easier. Hopefully we can play off each other. I can help him [Granger] out and he can help me out. That’s how I’m looking at it. We played well off each other last year, so hopefully me getting better and improving will make things a little easier.”