On the first day of December, Paul George didn't score a point. He missed all seven shots he took against the Warriors in 103-92 loss and knew that something had to change. On the second day of December, George went to the gym after the team's red-eye flight and got up 500 shots. Two nights later he went for 34 on 14-for-25 shooting against the Bulls and a new routine was born.
"I changed it all up," George told me before the Pacers played the Celtics. "Coming in, getting shots, getting a lift in before games and just being aggressive. It just got me in a zone to where I've shot that shot so many times, I feel comfortable now."
Over the next 15 games, George averaged 20.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists and shot 47 percent from the floor and better than 41 percent from behind the arc. Now people are talking about the possibility of George making the All-Star team, but the even-keeled 22-year-old is taking it in stride.
"To look at it from a critic's standpoint, I've only been playing well for a month now," he said. "So, I just got to continue on this path. If I can continue to keep going at the rate I'm going I feel like I'm playing at an All-Star level. But again, I've only done it for one month."
As if to prove the point, the Pacers walked into a buzzsaw at the Garden on Friday against an angry Celtics team and George went 4-for-18 in an ugly loss. He followed it up with a 4-for-11 outing against the Bucks. Still, it's a tantalizing thing to see a young player come into his own, and other people are taking notice as well.
"He's doing everything, that's what impresses me," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Usually at that age, you're trying to establish one thing. But he's become a better shooter, he's become a better post player, he's become a dominant defender. It's amazing that has come that quickly, and he's grown how many inches since he's been in the league? It's just amazing all the things that's happened to him, and they are all good. And most of them are from his doing, and that's pretty cool."
Here's the thing about expectations. No one can ever really be sure when someone will start living up to them. We want everything right now in this game, but sometimes it takes just a little bit of patience for everything to work itself out.
When Danny Granger hurt his knee, the basketball world was anxious to see how George would respond. No list of intriguing young players is complete without the 6'9 wing, who can score inside and out and is an ace defender on the perimeter. This was his chance for a huge breakout and then reality set in. George struggled in November, as did the Pacers, and he acknowledged that he put too much pressure on himself to replace Granger's scoring.
"I knew my role once we found out Danny wasn't going to be with us at the beginning of the season," George says now. "But I tried to make it to where I really had to be the go-to guy early on and I should have just let it all come to me and just play through my teammates and make it easy on myself.
"It was just coming into my own," he continued. "Once I understood that it's not going to be easy, it's something that I'm going to have to grow into and I got that through my head. I've always been good at letting the game come to me and that's when I know I play my best so I just stuck with that."
George has a strong case for the All-Star team, especially in a conference with very few sure things after the five starters are announced. Assuming Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo win the fan voting in the backcourt, George is among a group of young players that includes Jrue Holiday and Kyrie Irving who could give the East a much-needed infusion of youth and talent.
(Note: George isn't a guard or a forward so much as he's a wing and if the NBA really wanted to makeover its All-Star teams it would designate three positions: Point guards, wings and bigs. Technically, George is more of a small forward but that's splitting hairs and part of his appeal is his versatility. All-Star teams should be about picking the most deserving players, not shoehorning them into some outdated lineup construction. End rant.)
It's not just his offense. Pacers coach Frank Vogel calls George the best wing defender in the NBA and offers the following list of traits:
"He's 6-9. He's got Scottie Pippen type feet in terms of being able to run guys off the three-point line and still take great angles to contain the basketball and keep his own man in front of him," Vogel said. "He's got Allen Iverson type of defensive instincts in terms of reading passes and has great hands. You combine all those things with the fact that on any given night he's liable for 15 defensive rebounds, he's a huge part of us being number one in so many defensive categories."
The All-Star nod would be validation of George's development, but more importantly his play has helped revive the Pacers. Following a loss to the Spurs that left them with a 6-8 record, Indiana won 14 of its next 21 games and claimed the top spot in the Central Division.
The Pacers aren't all the way back to contender status yet. Most of those wins have come against a schedule ranked last by Basketball-Reference.com and their offense is still a mess. They rank 29th in efficiency per NBA.com's stats database and Roy Hibbert has been a disaster. He's shooting just 40 percent overall and an absurdly low 46 percent inside the restricted area. But Hibbert is still a force on the other end of the floor and the Pacers have the top-ranked defensive efficiency in the league. They may not lead the league in pretty wins, but they are winning.
Their starting five has played more minutes together than any other five-man unit in the league after Oklahoma City's starters and the Pacers crew is outscoring opponents by almost 9 points per 100 possessions. That's good because their bench has been awful. Presumably when Granger returns that will strengthen the lineup even more and allow Lance Stephenson to inject some offensive punch to the reserve unit.
We say presumably because now that George has come to terms with his game, there will be another adjustment period when Granger does return. That's part of the ebb and flow of the NBA season, but George's development looks to be real even, as he says, it's only been a month.
THE TAO OF T.A.
Tony Allen spent six mostly frustrating, sometimes oddly spectacular years in Boston, but it wasn't until his final season in green when he finally carved out his niche in the NBA. In 2010, Allen emerged as a holy terror on defense, locking down everyone from scoring guards to small forwards and helping the Celtics reach an unlikely seventh game in the NBA Finals.
The Celtics never really thought Allen would leave, but he jumped at a 3-year offer from the Grizzlies and continued to make his name as the Grindfather, as he likes to call himself.
"I don't get into none of that, man," Allen said about why he left Boston. "I'm just coming back old Tony Allen, the Grindfather. I'm still grinding. I ain't thought twice about what happened in the past. All I did was just push forward and grind forward."
It's interesting to note that while the Celtics suffer through a rough start to the season that it's their role players who have struggled the most. Try as they might, the Celtics have not been able to replace players like Allen, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins.
"We missed him the day he walked out of the door," Doc Rivers said. "He gives his team an identity, a toughness. When Tony Allen's in the building other teams know it. Forget the offensive stuff because he still somehow scores. He just makes things happen."
It's also interesting because Allen and Davis often chafed at their roles in Boston, yet despite getting more minutes (Allen) and shots (Davis) they are both essentially performing the same function with their new teams.
Allen, as always, remains a bit of an enigma. He summed up his role as only he can. "I'm just a piece to a puzzle, man. Not trying to be nothing more, nothing less. I'm staying in my lane. I am who I am ... but I am a force."
THE JUMBLED SIXTH MAN RACE
Invariably any conversation about the league's best reserve will include Jamal Crawford, who is having an excellent season and is a large part of one of the league's most dynamic reserve units. Crawford is averaging 20.4 points per 36 minutes with a 17.1 Player Efficiency Rating, career marks bettered only by his 2009-10 season with the Hawks when he was named Sixth Man of the Year.
Crawford embodies so much of what we think about when we consider the sixth man role. He provides instant offense and anchors an entirely different lineup when he comes into the game for the Clippers. A large part of their success has been predicated on that second unit, which is a massive upgrade from last season.
Ray Allen's shooting has been a perfect complement for the Heat's multiple, varied lineups. J.R. Smith has shot the Knicks in -- and sometimes out -- of games, but few players are as capable of changing the game's dynamic. Lou Williams, who gets none of the attention as the others and has actually moved into Atlanta's starting lineup of late has put up comparable numbers for the surprising Hawks, while Manu Ginobli just keeps going and going. Then there's Jarrett Jack, who has provided a strong playmaker opposite Stephen Curry.
What's also interesting about this group is that many of them are the proverbial square pegs who don't fit comfortably in round holes. Crawford, Smith and Williams are all high-volume scorers who make more sense as primary scoring options off the bench. Jack is a capable point guard, but he's a better guard in the old-school sense. Of the six, Ginobli and Allen are more like sixth starters, asked to come off the bench to provide balance to the overall flow of their teams' rotations.
As teams and coaches pay more attention to lineup data, the role of sixth man takes on even more importance, and it's hard to remember a time when there were so many dynamic scoring options.