1. Paul George Carries Franchise Forward, Fast
NEW YORK -- Nine years ago this week the Indiana Pacers were hit with what amounted to a basketball-version of an atomic bomb, a self-inflicted blow that leveled the franchise and left a years-long fallout.
The brawl in Detroit the week before Thanksgiving in 2004 was, of course, a low moment for the league that created a public relations and discipline disaster. For the Pacers it went deeper. Those reckless few minutes torpedoed a potential championship team.
Coming off a 61-win season where they lost in the conference finals, the Pacers had healthy and mid-prime stars Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson plus a still productive Reggie Miller playing in his last season hoping to finally get his ring.
They'd beaten their rival Pistons that night, smothered them with their trademark defensive grit, on the road to go to 7-2. That team's future was intensely bright. But it all was tainted at the Palace of Auburn Hills and it quickly withered. They played .500 ball after the suspensions were lowered that season and then they finished the next six seasons a combined 56 games under .500.
It has taken them a decade, many humbling nights where they played in front of a largely empty house because their fan base had been so turned off, but the Pacers have taken themselves back to the same precipice.
This time, though, they have a different makeup. This time they have a different star.
Wednesday night the Pacers moved to 10-1 on the season with a 103-96 overtime win over the struggling New York Knicks. It was a reasonably interesting game that featured a late Pacers comeback, a controversial but ultimately correct whistle in the closing seconds of regulation, and a dominant closing effort by Paul George.
It was exactly the kind of game the Pacers have been assembled to win. They didn't do anything particularly well, especially shooting as they struggled to just 32 percent through three quarters and fell down by 13 points at one point.
But because of their makeup, which is to defend and rebound with relentlessness, they won on the road without their best stuff. And because they have George, who is turning out to be the personification of karma taking a major turn in this franchise's favor.
"That's one of the things [team president] Larry Bird sought out to build when he had to change the image of our franchise but when we were having problems and off-court issues and obviously the brawl," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "We changed our image based on high-character people but that didn't just stop with guys who weren't going to get in trouble off the basketball court. He wanted to build it around guys who cared about being team-first guys."
The Pacers never sunk to the bottom, never got lucky in the lottery and therefore never drafted higher than 10th in those lean years. That pick was George, who they had fallen so hard for in scouting that they were prepared to pass up hometown favorite Gordon Hayward in the 2010 draft. They got a raw and underdeveloped Hibbert with a 17th pick after a draft night trade in '08. They made another draft night trade for George Hill, gambling by giving up the pick that became Kawhi Leonard. They signed David West as a free agent when others were concerned about his knee. They took a risk on the checkered past of Lance Stephenson because Bird believed in him. All of those moves were aimed at Bird's mission for team building and all of them have worked out.
On Monday before the Pacers left for this road trip, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith went to Indianapolis to interview George for a segment on "SportsCenter." George, though, declined to be interviewed unless the rest of the team's starters were included, like a high-school star quarterback who insists giving credit to his offensive linemen.
No matter what you think of George's request that passively makes himself look like a good teammate, it very much fits into his nature and the identity of this Pacers team.
Being a good guy has limited value in the NBA. But George is also the type of player who can score 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, as he did Wednesday, and at the other end largely accept defending Carmelo Anthony by himself and hold Anthony to 1-of-10 shooting in the second half. It's hard to find that in the same package but the Pacers seem to have it with their prized 23-year-old.
"Whoever the best wing scorer on the court is, he's defending that guy for the entire time he's on the court," Vogel said. "So to be able to do that and the toll that takes on your legs and then to come down and carry the offensive load, very impressive."
Last year the role was thrust on George when teammate Danny Granger, the Pacers' resident No. 1 offensive option, went down with a major knee injury in the first week of the season. George wasn't totally ready to handle suddenly being the go-to guy. He was reluctant and the results, especially early in the season, showed.
If it was November 2012 and not November 2013, George wouldn't have carried the Pacers home with 35 points and Indiana would've lost Wednesday. They started last season 3-6 while they were in shellshock from losing Granger, not all that different from the Knicks' current nosedive after losing the valuable Tyson Chandler.
"Last year I would've deferred, I would've looked to have someone else take this role," George said of how the game's final minutes played out, with every single play being draw up for him. "This year, this time around, I'm going to be more aggressive. I'm more confident with myself. I had to learn myself."
By the end of last season George was already morphing. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals. James got the better of George, averaging 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 51 percent shooting. Almost all of it came against George on defense. George averaged 19 points, six rebounds and five assists on 47 percent shooting.
In Game 1 of that series he drilled a 3-pointer to force overtime and then hit three clutch free throws to tie the game before James hit a game-winning layup just before the buzzer. He made three more huge free throws Wednesday to force overtime after drawing a foul on a 3-pointer with the Pacers down three in the final 10 seconds.
After the Heat took the Pacers out in Game 7 when George had one of his worst games of the season, scoring just seven points, he became obsessed with getting ready for the next chance. He'd been caught off guard by his role last season, this year was going to be different.
He spent the summer practicing shots that he might take at the end of close games, practicing creating space and making contested attempts. Much like his three jumpers in overtime that sunk the Knicks for a sixth straight home loss.
"He wasn't prepared to carry the load he ended up carrying last year because Danny's injury was unexpected," West said. "This year he understood what he was going to be asked to do and the weight that was going to be on his shoulders and it's showing right now."
Granger is still out, now felled by a calf injury that has been slow to heal. The Pacers, who have also dealt with an early-season injury to Hill, have still not been whole and still not totally hit their potential. But for the first time since Nov. 19, 2004, that ceiling realistically looks unlimited. The ultra-confident team knows it, as does their blossoming star.
"Most people are just born with it," George said. "I feel like I was born with it but I didn't know how to do it. I'm working on that, I'm learning how to do it."
Around The Association
MVP: While Dirk Nowitzki had a throwback game, with 35 points, his new teammate Monta Ellis edges him out for game MVP. His 37 points on 18 shots were impressive, but once again his passing helped seal the win.
X factor: Perhaps Dwight Howard read Zach Lowe's Grantland column on his post play. Howard dominated inside, finishing on hooks and counter moves. He finished 12-for-16 with 33 points, including 9-for-13 from the line.
Defining moment: With 1:20 to go and the Houston leading 119-116, a Dirk block resulted in Ellis finding Shawn Marion for a dunk. After another Houston miss, Ellis again found Marion on a drive, this time for a corner three, giving Dallas the lead.
MVP: Zach Randolph led the way offensively down the stretch, but Marc Gasol kept the Grizzlies afloat early when his teammates were ice cold from the floor. His typically understated yet dominant defensive performance set the tone.
Defining moment: Just one possession after hitting a jumper to put Memphis up by five late in overtime, Tayshaun Prince turned back the clock again. His fadeaway with 24 seconds left over the outstretched arms of Andre Iguodala barely beat the shot clock, and effectively sealed a great road win for the Grizzlies.
That was ... predictable: The Warriors played this game without Steph Curry and on a streak of 10 consecutive losses to the Grizzlies. This was bound to be a physical, hard-fought, low-scoring affair -- just the type of environment in which Memphis thrives.
MVP: Isaiah Thomas (23 points) was the best player on the floor for the Kings. The Suns had very little rim protection and Thomas took advantage of that, driving to the basket and scoring in the paint at will.
X factor: In a high-scoring affair, a 12-point third quarter proved to be Phoenix's undoing. The Suns' offense struggled in the period, forcing the team to try to erase a double-digit deficit for most of the second half.
That was ... déjà vu: Phoenix played a home-and-away against Sacramento and came away with the same result in each game -- a loss. It should be noted that Eric Bledsoe missed both games with a bruised shin. Phoenix could have used him.
MVP: With just four points at halftime, Kawhi Leonard exploded in the third with 12 to put some separation between San Antonio and Boston. Leonard finished with 16 points, five boards and five steals.
Defining moment: In the third quarter, Leonard lost sight of his man, Jeff Green, who floated to the top of the key. Realizing it with just enough time, Leonard recovered and intercepted the pass intended for Green for a breakaway layup. It was the story of the night for San Antonio: unfocused for a large part but the positive result in the end.
That was ... a solid effort from Boston: Coming into San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back after getting blown out in Houston, this limited Celtics roster had every reason to get blown out. But 19 points and 17 boards from Jared Sullinger help the Celtics hang tough.
MVP: After a slow start, Chris Paul finished with 20 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and four steals while breaking Magic Johnson's record of 11 consecutive points-assists double-doubles to start an NBA season.
X factor: Kevin Love's night off. Love is dominant enough that he can fill a box score even when his shot isn't falling, but a 2-for-14 night probably isn't something the Wolves can survive when playing against the elite of the Western Conference.
That was ... clutch: Chris Paul had four points in the first 43 minutes of the game, but made up for that scoring 16 points in the final 5:07.
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge. The league's best midrange big man was up to his usual standard, scoring 21 points and grabbing seven rebounds on a flurry of 18- and 19-footers.
X factor: The Blazers moved the ball around the court far better than the Bucks did. The majority of their 31 attempted 3-pointers were open looks, but they missed a bunch. It could have been a much bigger win.
Defining moment: Midway through the third quarter with Portland ahead by six points, O.J. Mayo took a fast-break pass in for a layup. Nicolas Batum swiped it away, and the Bucks never got any closer.
MVP: Anthony Davis, the Pelicans' second-year star, was ultra-efficient offensively, scoring 22 points on just 12 shots. He was also able to make high impact plays on the defensive end, as he pulled down nine rebounds and had eight blocks, while altering at least a half dozen others
X factor: The Pelicans are 2-0 since Ryan Anderson returned from a toe injury and are averaging 120 points in those two games. Anderson went 6-for-9 from the field (including 4-for-6 from deep), giving the Pelicans 19 points off the bench. But more than anything, Anderson creates space for his other teammates.
That was a ... rookie debut: Trey Burke played his first NBA game and showed flashes on both ends of the floor. He was ultra-aggressive offensively, showing confidence in his ability to get to the rim and in his jump shot. Burke finished 5-for-8 from the field, scoring 11 points in 12 minutes.
MVP: DeMar DeRozan didn't make a field goal in the game's final 18 minutes, 44 seconds. Unlikely he's bothered by this. The cat-quick guard poured in 30 before that, and scored 33 overall. In his past three games, DeRozan is averaging 33 points on 50 percent shooting.
X factor: With perimeter defense so leaky you could drive a tank through it, Philadelphia entered Wednesday last in the NBA in opponent's 3-point field goal percentage and 3-pointers allowed. They didn't improve on this. The Raptors hit a season-high 14 triples on 29 shots.
That was ... economical: Spencer Hawes, who like the rest of the Sixers' veterans is very much on the trade block, continued to up his value, scoring 28 on 13 shots and adding 10 rebounds. Keep that up, young man, and you might get to suddenly move to a strange new city where you don't know anyone!
3. Wednesday's Best
Monta Ellis, Mavs:
Monta Ellis had a season-high 37 points and assisted on the go-ahead basket as the Dallas Mavericks rallied to beat the Houston Rockets 123-120. Maybe missing out on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams will be a blessing in disguise for Dallas.
4. Wednesday's Worst
The Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are not hot. Starters not named Kyrie Irving combined to shoot 2-for-15 from the field in a 98-91 loss to the Wizards. When No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett entered the game in the fourth, he shot an air ball on a 3-point attempt. Sigh.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"It's too early to panic. But me, personally, I'm panicking. I don't like this."
-- Knicks swingman J.R. Smith, after his team fell to 3-8 on the season.
8. Driving In Dallas
9. Stat Check
Some might say that the Brooklyn Nets are inventing new ways to lose: Case in point: They made 14-of-26 3-pointers, yet lost to the Detroit Pistons at home by 12 points. Teams that make at least 14 3-pointers and shoot 50 percent or better on those shots at home are now 76-7 over the last five seasons (including this game). They are one of only two teams to lose such a game by double figures in that span (Magic lost by 28 to the Heat earlier this season).
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: Bradley Beal. The soph's seventh 3-point attempt was an airball. But that's OK, he made his previous six en route to a team-high 26 points. Beal is really mastering the ability to find space for his smooth jumper, just ask Jarrett Jack.
Defining moment: Free throws. The Wizards let a 27-point lead to start the fourth quarter slip to four points with three minutes left, but made all 10 of their free throw attempts to end the game (and are 29-29 from the line over the last two games).
LVP: Dion Waiters. He played more like a heavyset Jordan Crawford, the Wizards version. And if you must know, Anthony Bennett fired an airball 3-pointer with Jan Vesely running at him soon into his six minutes of play.
MVP: LeBron James? You were expecting someone else? The world's best player didn't make anything from outside of 2 feet, but it didn't matter. He punished Orlando in transition, bullied them in the post, and picked apart the defense with pinpoint passes to open 3-point shooters.
LVP: Nikola Vucevic destroyed the Heat last season, setting a franchise record with 29 rebounds in one game against them, but was completely ineffective on Wednesday, fouling out after 23 minutes after recording just six rebounds and six points on 2-for-7 shooting.
That was ... unexpected: With Dwyane Wade missing his second straight game due to knee soreness, Heat coach Erik Spolestra started the semi-ambulatory James Jones in his place. Jones responded by doing what he does best -- setting up in the corner and knocking down catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Jones finished with 17 points on 5-for-7 shooting from deep.
MVP: Entering the fourth, Paul George was shooting 5-for-15, but he plumb went off, hitting 7-of-9, scoring 15 of the Pacers final 19 points, and practically wearing Melo's shirt in the post.
Defining moment: With five seconds to go, Iman Shumpert grazed George's elbow on a 3-point heave, giving Indiana the opportunity to snatch what looked like a sure victory out of the New Yorkers' defeated jaws.
That was ... a scrum: Why wait till the playoffs when these bitter rivals are involved? It wasn't always pretty, with both teams missing open shots, but the Knicks and Pacers traded momentum-swinging body blows and battles under the boards that left claw marks.
MVP: With his increasing struggles throughout the young season, Kemba Walker needed to have a game like Wednesday night's. Based on ruthless aggression, Walker dropped a season-high 31 points on 12-for-20 shooting from the field that included a mix of perimeter shooting and penetration.
Defining moment: In the closing moments of the first half, Deron Williams attempted to a contest perimeter shot but ended up landing on the foot of Kemba Walker and twisting his left ankle. After that injury, Brooklyn's offense looked out of sync and extremely stagnant.
That was ... aggression: Even without Al Jefferson, the Bobcats were able to absolutely dominate Brooklyn inside the paint. Charlotte's 52-34 advantage over the Nets on points in the paint was the closing factor in the team's closing victory.
MVP: Jeff Teague powered the Atlanta offense with 18 points and seven assists. Teague's eight fourth-quarter points allowed Atlanta to pull away from what was a two-point game after three quarters.
X factor: Many wondered how Atlanta would cope defensively after the loss of Josh Smith to free agency, but Al Horford more than filled that role Wednesday night. Horford had five blocked shots and was a menace toward Detroit's pick-and-roll offense.
LVP: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a rough night in his return to his home state, as the rookie went 1-for-9 from the floor and 0-for-6 from behind the arc.