Paul George: The Emerging Star
By Brian Martin
Yesterday we posted about the clutch moments from LeBron James in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But he wasn't the only clutch performer on the court on Wednesday night.
If it weren't for the performance of Indiana's Paul George, LeBron's heroics would not have been necessary.
First, there was the incredible 3-point shot to send the game to overtime. On Indiana's final possession of regulation, the Pacers play completely fell apart and George bailed them out with an incredible shot. With five seconds left, George had the ball above the 3-point line in the middle of the floor, he passed to David West coming up toward the 3-point line on the left side. West caught the pass and immediately gave it back to George well behind the arc.
With the seconds ticking away, George rose from the Eastern Conference Finals logo about eight feet behind the 3-point line and drained the long ball from 32 feet away over James to tie the game at 92 with 0.7 seconds to play to force the extra period.
George kept it up in overtime, converting an old-fashioned three-point play with just over two minutes to play to put the Pacers ahead three. Miami answered with a three-point play by Chris Bosh with 50 seconds to play. A missed jumper by West led to the first of James' clutch layups, putting the Heat up by two with just under 11 seconds to play.
Then it happened again. Another broken play by the Pacers, this time George Hill fumbling the inbounds pass from George near mid court. Hill and Miami's Norris Cole went to the floor to get the ball, Hill was able to recover and get a quick pass to George, who drove up the right side, pulled up for three and was fouled by Dwyane Wade. George walked to the free throw line for three attempts and calmly knocked down all three to give the Pacers a one-point lead with 2.2 seconds to play.
We all know what happened next as LeBron hit the game-winner. And while this will go down as a signature performance for James, it should also be remembered for George's performance. He finished with 26 points, five assists and four rebounds in nearly 47 minutes on the floor. It was far from a perfect game. He did have a game-high six turnovers and made a costly defensive error with an overplay on James on the final possession of the game.
But Wednesday did serve as a reminder that we're witnessing a star player on the rise. The third-year pro was named the NBA's Most Improved Player, was selected to his first All-Star Game, named to the All-Defensive Second Team and was an All-NBA Third Team selection.
Year over Year -- Regular Season
Part of George's improvement has come with increased opportunity. He emerged as a starter in his sophomore season, but averaged just under 30 minutes a game. This season, with Danny Granger sidelined for all but five games, George's minutes increased and he took full advantage. There are three categories above that stand out the most -- defensive rating (becoming a lockdown defender), assist percentage (becoming more of a playmaker) and usage rate (Pacers relying on him more and more). This improvement has continued in the playoffs.
Year over Year -- Playoffs
A look at George's per 36 minute stats show a slow and steady improvement for George. So while his per game numbers show a greater increase in points per game (12.1 to 17.4) than his per 36 minutes numbers (14.7 to 16.7) over the past two years, his improvement has not just been about being on the floor more. His increase in usage rate and PIE show that he is also being more productive with his increased role.
Per 36 Minutes
Not only is Paul George the Pacers' leading scorer in the regular season (17.4 ppg) and playoffs (19.7 ppg), he is the one called upon to guard the opposing team's best perimeter player. Last round, he had Carmelo Anthony, now it's LeBron James.
And these numbers don't even show his impact on the defensive end of the floor. While George's on-court Offensive Rating has remained fairly consistent throughout his career (103.9 in his rookie season and 103.2 in his third season), his on-court Defensive Rating has improved dramatically (104.0 as a rookie, 98.3 as a soph and 96.0 this season). With George on the floor, the Pacers are giving up just 96.0 points per 100 possessions.
Now George can't take all of the credit here. He's also playing on the best defensive team in the league this season and has fellow outstanding defenders such as Hibbert on the court as well. The Pacers' starting five was the second most used five-man lineup in the league this season, trailing only the Thunder's starting five, so the team's defense as a cohesive unit is really something to tout along with George's contributions.
But when George is off the floor, the Pacers suffer the most on the defensive end. With an off-court defensive rating of 111.3, the Pacers are giving up 111.3 points per 100 possessions in the 84 minutes George has been off the court. The next closest is George Hill at 106.4. That is part of the reason George leads the Pacers in on-court minutes at 545, the next closest player is David West at 460 minutes played.
On/Off Court Summary -- Playoffs
Going back to the end of Game 1 and George coming through with a pair of clutch plays to put the Pacers in a position to win and steal home court from the Heat.
George has been in four games with clutch situations -- last than five minutes or regulation or overtime, score within five points -- and has an effective field goal percentage of 57.1 percent, far above his regular season mark of 48.3 percent. Not only is he shooting better, he's also being used more often, with a 30.8 usage rate in the clutch in this year's playoffs.
Clutch (Last 5 Min, +/- 5PTS)
As George continues to emerge as a star in this league, we took a look in the stats archive to see if there was a proper comparison for an elite two-way player this early in his career. The answer is Scottie Pippen -- the Hall of Famer who helped lead the Bulls to six titles alongside Michael Jordan.
Turns out that George's offensive numbers compare nicely to Pippen in his first three years, both regular season and playoffs (see below for the numbers). George and Pippen are similar in size, have the ability to guard anyone from point guards to power forward, and are both All-NBA defenders. Pippen got his first of ten All-Defensive team selections in his fourth year, George got his first in his third year.
Pippen vs George -- Regular Season
Pippen vs George -- Playoffs
Both players had a steady rise in their minutes and stats over the three year period, ending up with some numbers that were nearly identical. Pippen's 19.3 points per game in the playoffs in his third season with the Bulls is just behind George's 19.7 average through 13 games this playoffs. The rebounding and assist numbers are similar as well, with a similar rise over the years as their respective teams relied on them more heavily.