Few players this season raised their profiles as noticeably or as quickly as Indiana's Paul George, who grew into a legitimate All-Star in a few short months. An injury to Danny Granger thrust the 23-year-old wing into a larger role than ever before and he responded with a flood of personal bests, posting career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists and steals per game and ranking second on the Pacers in usage rate after being sixth by that measure last season. It was a banner season for an exciting young talent, and striking enough to earn George the league's Most Improved Player award.
But while this season proved to be hugely important for George from a developmental standpoint, the playoffs have only served to reinforce how far he has yet to go. All of those omens that are conveniently scrubbed from the most glowing endorsements of George's game (career-low 41.9 percent shooting, career highs in turnovers per minute and turnover percentage, a drop in three-point percentage) have come to be accentuated in the postseason, where George has missed shots and committed errors in bulk. George's game feels a bit overstretched -- strained to its limits for the sake of necessity and improvement, but without the kind of efficiency that would justify his prominent role in the offense.
In a league where proven scorers are looking to round out their skill sets, George faces the inverted challenge of honing his all-around game into a more potent offensive product. He's led Indiana in scoring through some ugly, mucked-up playoff games, but in the process has struggled to find the basket. George has made just 39.7 percent of his field goals and 26.9 percent of his three-point tries in the postseason -- numbers surprisingly similar to those of the much-maligned Carmelo Anthony (39.1 percent; 29.5 percent), whom George now guards on a game-to-game basis in the Pacers' second-round series against the Knicks.
Those two provide an interesting contrast, and through struggles and all, a teaching point for George. One could point to a number of differences between Anthony and George, but their greatest point of offensive divergence comes in the form of application. Anthony can -- and clearly will -- create a shot out of most any situation. He's a credible mid-range shooter, a great post-up player and a dual pick-and-roll option. Anthony uses his size and speed as the basis for an instant mismatch, creating decent shots with relative ease.
George may not want to emulate Anthony's volume shooting, but he could at the very least learn to better put his burgeoning skills to use. For all of his strengths, George is still a player who needs optimal space to operate, and who struggles to exploit his size. He may lack in terms of matching Anthony's strength, but throughout the second round the 6-foot-8 George has struggled in part because the Knicks can guard him with any number of smaller defenders -- including the 6-5 Iman Shumpert and the 6-4 Jason Kidd:
George has attempted to score by shooting over the top of those opponents, but still lacks a good enough handle and a secure enough post game to take advantage of smaller defenders on a regular basis. That allows opponents like the Knicks entirely too much freedom in manipulating and switching their defensive matchups. Defend him with a smaller guard, and his height and length should allow him to take advantage of the coverage. Guard him with a bigger player, and his athleticism and shooting ability should give him the edge. Unfortunately, George's game is still catching up to the possibilities that his best attributes provide, making him far too likely to attempt shots like this one:
George is a fine shooter, but still a limited, high-risk player in terms of his ability to create off the dribble. There's no fault in such a shortcoming in light of the fact that George is still learning as he goes, but it creates a noticeable difference between his improving game and that of many of his All-Star contemporaries.
But in fairness to George, that difference exists, too, in the other stages of the game. He's miles ahead of many star-caliber players with his defensive ability. George's length and timing have made him a tremendous adversary for some of the league's most potent scorers -- Anthony included. In this series, George has done a fantastic job of guarding against all of the possibilities of Anthony's versatile game while still being incredibly mindful of his tendencies. He's been caught jumping on Anthony's pump fakes on occasion, but only because he knows how much his mark relies on the pull-up and understands how vital denying the jumper is in chasing Anthony into the help:
He takes away Anthony's perimeter options with amazing consistency and often serves as the lip of the Pacers' funnel. With George directing the action, most every Knicks possession ends in a forced attempt or a spiral toward the waiting Roy Hibbert, who clogs up the paint and protects the rim at an elite level. It's a glorious combination, and one that thrives on a game-to-game basis due to George's ability to channel elite scorers exactly where the Pacers' system intends.
This brand of defense is particularly devious, as it's designed to alter the flow of an offense and convince opponents that driving into the lane -- and into the crowd -- is truly in their best interests. It cuts off contingencies to the point that ball handlers have little choice but to select from a series of underwhelming options -- a forced pass, a doomed drive, an inefficient mid-range jumper -- all while the shot clock begins to encroach on the offense's progression. Indiana doesn't stop their opponents; coach Frank Vogel's team turns their own offensive agency against them. Breaking them down requires incredible discipline and precision, but only because a defender like George can avoid being compromised by even the most physically gifted players in the NBA. His defense is useful and applicable to every assigned matchup, making him useful on that end for precisely the reasons that he's limited on offense. It’s for that reason, too, that Anthony's and George’s shooting percentages come with such different contexts despite their proximity. Neither is shooting well from the floor, and neither has managed to overcome the nature of this sloppy offensive series. But while Anthony and the Knicks have buckled under the weight of their errant shooting, George is engaged and invested in the status quo -- those gross, low-scoring games that the Pacers have come to own. He’s not yet equipped to make Indiana’s offense anything more than it currently is, but for the moment his broader utility helps the Pacers carve out wins on their terms.