Thunder’s Paul George expects to be jeered in return to Indiana
OKLAHOMA CITY — Paul George knows the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse well enough to expect a rude reception when he returns for the first time.
George spent seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers, and the four-time All-Star helped them reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice. After last season, George’s camp made it clear Indiana didn’t figure into his long-term plans, so the disappointed Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis rather than risk getting nothing in return for him.
Indiana fans value loyalty — the player they hold in the highest regard, Reggie Miller, stayed with the Pacers for 18 years. They had their hearts broken in 2005-06 when Ron Artest demanded a trade, the first step in the dismantling of a nucleus the Pacers expected to compete for NBA titles for years to come.
George, also a one-time centerpiece to Indiana’s title hopes, is gone, too. He figures boos will rain down as a result.
“I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” he said. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to embrace that. I’m going to thrive on that. It’s going to give me the energy to play better.”
Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony will be in a similar situation when the Thunder visit the New York Knicks on Saturday. Anthony was sent to Oklahoma City in the offseason after he waived a no-trade clause.
“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said. “We’re in this together. We understand the situation. I’m pretty sure he’s going to embrace that situation, and we’re going to help him embrace that situation, and as a team, we’re going to help him embrace that situation.”
George’s transition has been a bit bumpy. He is playing outstanding defense, yet still getting comfortable on offense alongside Anthony and Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 20.6 points on 42 percent shooting overall and 41 percent shooting from 3-point range and leads the league with 2.4 steals per game. The team has struggled to a 12-14 record.
“We’re not enjoying these losses, but we’re enjoying the grind,” George said. “We’re enjoying the battles, we’re enjoying the targets on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together.”
The trade seems to be just what Oladipo needed. After Monday’s games, he ranked 10th in the league with 24.5 points per game, and the Pacers were No. 5 in the Eastern Conference with a 16-11 record.
“I think he’s just in attack mode,” George said. “He’s aggressive. He’s confident. You can tell he’s worked extremely hard over this past summer, and Indy has given him the keys. You’ve got a young team around, a fresh locker room. It’s a lot of positive energy over there. They are playing well. They are playing good basketball.”
Oladipo downplayed Wednesday’s game in his typical low-key manner. He said he still is friends with his former Thunder teammates and the game simply is about handling business.
“I look forward to every game, every game I play,” he said. “This is just another game, just another game that we’ve got to win. Obviously, you guys and the fans want to blow it up, which is fine. But we have to go out and play Pacers basketball.”
Anthony preferred to stir the pot. He believes the expected hostile environment in Indianapolis will provide an opportunity to build team unity.
“We’ve got to be ready for that because it’s us against the whole (state of) Indiana,” Anthony said. “Not just the Pacers, but the whole Indiana. I think Paul is ready for it. As a professional, as a competitor, it’s kind of bittersweet because you spent so much time and you want a different reaction from the people you put a lot of work in for, you fought for and you competed for. But then again, you want to go in there and have a good game. You want to win.”