So, Paul George, how do you feel after saving the season?
“Tired,” he said.
It showed in his voice, his face and his slumped shoulders afterward but rarely on the court during the Pacers’ must-have 91-88 victory over the Hawks in Game 4 Saturday in Atlanta.
A loss most certainly would’ve added speed to what was starting to look like a death spiral for this mysterious team. A victory doesn’t necessarily stop it, but it does place them back in a position of advantage in this first-round series: tied 2-2 with home-court advantage heading into Game 5 Monday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“This game could’ve gotten away from us and we’d be down 3-1,” George said. “It’s going to be a long series. This team’s not going away. We’ve just got to build some consistency.”
With so much on the line, the Pacers’ best players did what you would hope. George hit a huge 3-pointer to put them in front 86-85 with 2:11 remaining. On the next possession, David West hit a 3-pointer – the second of his playoff career and first since 2008 – to make it 89-85 with 1:33 remaining.
There would be missteps in the final 90 seconds but fortunately for the Pacers they would be made by both teams. After George missed a pair of free throws that would’ve iced it with 7.5 seconds left, the Pacers played smothering defense on the Hawks’ last-chance inbounds play. George Hill kept Kyle Korver from getting around his screen, eliminating the first option. David West was glued to second option Paul Millsap, forcing him to give it up to Pero Antic, who missed a 3-pointer as time expired.
George scored 24 points with 10 rebounds, five assists, and two blocked shots in just under 44 minutes. It was his fourth consecutive double-double and for the series he is averaging 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals and shooting 50 percent (13 of 26) from the 3-point line.
With the Pacers trailing 48-42 at halftime, he played all 24 minutes in the second half, scoring 18 of his points while continuing his disruptive defensive effort against Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague, who managed 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
“He missed a couple threes and I thought about (giving George a breather) but against this team when you have the speed they have out there with Jeff Teague or Kyle Korver, I mean he has to play, at least for the defensive end,” said coach Frank Vogel. “Everybody’s going to look at his offensive numbers: 24 on 10 of 18 shooting, 4 of 7 from 3s, but he’s guarding an elite point guard all night and doing all the intangibles on the defensive end.”
Which fully well explains the fatigue.
“At this point,” George said, “whatever coach needs from me I’m going to do.”
West also came up large, making up for his own pair of missed free throws at the 2:41 mark of the fourth quarter with the big 3-pointer, which came from a George Hill drive-and-kick. West finished with 18 points, Hill 15 with five assists.
“I was pretty disappointed that I missed those two free throws and I just wanted to make a play for the guys, that’s what it came down to,” West said. “In my mind I’m saying, ‘I’ve got to make a play to make up for it, I’ve got to make a play to make up for it.’ George did a great job hitting me in rhythm, I got my feet down and was able to make a play for us. It felt good.”
After Kyle Korver made three free throws to cut it to 89-88 with 1:24 left, Hill converted a hard drive for a three-point lead and neither team could produce points on the final five possessions.
“One of those games where you’ve just got to find a way to win,” Vogel said, “do whatever it takes to squeeze out a win.”
In other words, a playoff game.