Only this time, they weren’t from Heat, Lakers or Bulls fans invading Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They came from the home crowd.
Paul George, are you ready for this?
“I am,” he said. “I’m ready for whatever it is, whatever challenge it is, I’m ready.”
George’s worst stat line of the season Wednesday night was one approximately 96.4 percent of all basketball players would relish: 21 points, six rebounds, three assists as the Pacers dismantled the Bulls, 97-80.
And it didn’t do justice to his impact.
Playing the second night of a back-to-back, he demanded the challenge of defending Derrick Rose for most of the second half, rendering the Chicago star virtually invisible.
In the third quarter, when the Pacers found their footing (again), it was George who knocked the dirt off the cleats, scoring eight points and sparking a 16-6 run that wasn’t a knockout punch but left the Bulls wobbling on the ropes.
The Pacers are 5-0 for the first time since they entered the NBA. The last time they started this well, they won their second ABA championship in the 1971-72 season.
George isn’t the only reason, not by a long shot, but he is the biggest.
The numbers flow so easily: 25.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.8 steals, .483 shooting overall, .444 from the 3-point line.
If he keeps this up, and there is little reason to be skeptical, that max contract will seem like a bargain.
Yes, it’s early, but George is the best player on the best team in the NBA. That alone should place his name in the preliminary MVP discussion. But there is so much more.
“The best wing defender in the game is also probably going to be a top-10 scorer, as well,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “The guy impacts the game in more ways than most players – defense, rebounding, deflections, playmaking, running offense, knocking down open shots, playing in the open court.
“I mean, he impacts the game in every way you possibly can imagine. So he has the ability, yeah. He’s a fourth-year player, he’s got to put it all together, got to do it for a whole season but he’s one of the most complete players in the game.”
This time last year, we all wondered if George was too nice, if he lacked that assassin’s mentality. The difference between wanting to win and needing to is what separates great talent from great champions.
He’s still a nice guy. That, hopefully, will never change. But he has unveiled the steel-eyed gaze, the controlled obsession with not only winning but beating the other guy in the process, that the Pacers so desperately need in their quest for a ring.
This is not to suggest he is a one-man show. Far from it. The Lance Stephenson Express keeps chugging down the tracks, only now the destination isn’t points unknown. Roy Hibbert is completely dominating the lane defensively – seriously, 26 blocked shots in five games? Ridiculous. David West is, well, David West.
And the bench is not quite in rhythm, but getting game-changing contributions from Luis Scola and C.J. Watson on a consistent basis.
But it is George in the middle of everything. He’s playing with more than confidence. He’s playing with knowledge. When he speaks, the words sometimes sound brash or bold, but the tone is matter of fact.
Take, for example, his response to the question about the decision to defend Rose.
“I wanted that matchup,” he said. “I know he’s a player that can get hot and take over games. It’s me being confident. I feel like I can stay in front of everyone and guard everyone in this league. I wasn’t going to let him get hot on us.”
Yeah, he’s ready.