INDIANAPOLIS — If you poured through the box scores to determine the one player who’s made the biggest difference for the Indiana Pacers in their 2-1 series lead over Miami, you’d come up with several answers — none of them wrong, mind you, but none completely right, either.
Roy Hibbert has been big, averaging 14.7 points and 13.3 rebounds, and had that monster 19-point, 18-rebound effort in Indiana’s 94-75 Game 3 win Thursday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. David West also is averaging a double-double (15.7 points and 10.3 boards). George Hill has scored in double figures in every game, including 20 the last time out. Even Darren Collison has been a factor off the bench.
All have played their part, but none has been bigger than the guy with the most modest stats: Paul George.
The second-year shooting guard from Fresno State has been instrumental in the team’s defensive scheme because of his ability to handle Miami superstar Dwyane Wade largely without help. Though he produced just 19 points in Indiana’s two victories, he had one overwhelming statistic in his favor: In George’s 66 minutes on the court, the Pacers outscored the Heat by 43 points. In 30 minutes with George on the bench, Miami outscored Indiana by 21.
“Paul George is one of the top five most versatile defenders in the NBA,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s doing a great job on Wade. Wade had an off night (going 2 of 13 in Game 3). When he did get free he didn’t knock down shots. We can’t give Paul all the credit. Wade’s too good of a player to have shooting nights like he had (Thursday), but Paul is just competing, he’s growing by the day and we’re just happy about what his future looks like.”
As Vogel said, the Pacers aren’t making any bold claims about George shutting down Wade, though the Miami star has shot 18 of 58 (31 percent) in the series. But the 6-foot-9 George has made life difficult, using his length to alter Wade’s jump shot and his quickness to keep him from turning the corner on pick-and-rolls.
Wade was held scoreless in the first half for the first time in his 95-game playoff career, missing all five of his shots, and has appeared frustrated the past two games. In Game 2, he picked up a flagrant foul for elbowing Collison to the floor from behind in transition, then classlessly chided the Pacers for celebrating their 78-75 victory afterwards.
In Game 3, he had a heated argument with coach Erik Spoelstra during a timeout and never appeared fully engaged in the game.
“I thought P.G. did a good job just kind of smothering him,” West said. “They caught the ball a step or two outside where they wanted to catch it, (George) didn’t allow them to get some things on the move and it worked out for us.”
As a rookie, George was assigned to defend MVP point guard Derrick Rose of the Bulls in the first-round playoff series and performed as well as could be expected. His disruptive defense was one of the reasons the eighth-seeded Pacers pushed the top-seeded Bulls much harder than most thought they would.
Now the highest draft pick on the Indiana roster — No. 10 in 2010 — George has another MVP-caliber player on his hands. Small wonder his offense has suffered. He’s averaged 9.0 points in the postseason, but contributed in a number of areas — 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals.
He started to come out of his shell in the second half of Game 2 with a three-pointer followed by a steal and dunk to spark a game-changing 20-4 run, and had another three and another steal — this one resulting in a pair of free throws — in a 19-3 third-quarter run that broke it open.
“I wanted to come out and be aggressive on (Wade) again and force him to make jump shots, and he wasn’t making them. I guess that will be my plan for the next game,” George said. “We just pressured; we pressured and executed on the offensive end. They tried to take us out of a lot of our stuff, but we just made plays.”
As the series wears on and the pressure on Wade and LeBron James to carry Miami in the absence of Chris Bosh mounts, George might find it difficult to maintain his anonymity.