Paul George is a 23-year-old guilt-free pleasure. He’s a spectacular open-court player who has put in the work to become a multi-faceted scorer, yet he doesn’t let that define him. Blessed with an abundance of natural talent, he plays like defense like a young Scottie Pippen*, and comes across as a genuinely good dude who cares about winning first and foremost.
*That was coach Frank Vogel’s comparison earlier this year when the Pacers made it through Boston. Pippen’s an all-timer and he shouldn’t be name-dropped with just anyone, but George has the tools and is already recognized as one of the game’s top perimeter defenders so it’s not that outlandish a statement.
George’s one sin this season was trying too hard to replace Danny Granger, who missed most of the year with a knee injury. Once George grew comfortable in his new role he turned into a legitimate All-Star performer in just his third season.
His shooting has suffered a bit in the postseason, but he’s made up for it by becoming a better playmaker and concentrating on defense. In other words, George is mastering the art of contributing when he’s not scoring. There is almost nothing not to like about him and if he played in a major media market he’d be approaching supernova status.
Roy Hibbert is the occasionally awkward force of nature in the middle of Indiana’s vaunted defense. Like Marc Gasol in Memphis, he impacts the game by forcing teams into not doing the things they want to do. He’s become adept at giving just enough ground on drives and using his long reach to turns layups into bricks without committing fouls.
His offensive game is rudimentary with lots of put-backs and tips augmented by an old-school sweeping hook shot and a stationary "jumper." After a difficult regular season, he’s back to making almost 50 percent of his shots.
Like George, he struggled early with the added weight of expectations; Hibbert's were brought on by a new contract. He’s since realized what he can do and what he can’t, which puts him ahead of the curve. He’s also goofy enough to consider wearing a monocle to a podium appearance.
Rounding out the core is David West, a no-nonsense veteran who exudes toughness the way Charles Oakley used to own it. He’s more skilled than Oak and not quite as rough around the edges, but no one takes liberties when West is on the court. He’s the grown-up conscience of the locker room who counseled both George and Hibbert through their struggles while putting together one of his finest all-around seasons.
The introductions are necessary because the Pacers stand one game away from a trip to the conference finals for the first time in almost a decade after beating the Knicks 93-82 in Game 4 Tuesday night. They existed in near-anonymity and rarely appeared on national television during the regular season. Their first-round series with the Hawks was an afterthought, the very definition of the NBA TV series. That they are often conventionally boring and lack the starpower of teams like New York and Miami has put them further on the league’s back burner.
But this is happening and they are for real. While the Knicks were trying out various lineup combinations as if coach Mike Woodson had drawn them out of Carmelo Anthony’s fedora, the Pacers simply did what they always do. There are no tricks or gimmicks. They defended all over the court playing their air-tight system to perfection and made enough jumpers to keep the margin comfortable throughout the game.
George shot 6-for-19 and made only one of his nine three-point attempts, but he grabbed 14 rebounds, handed out seven assists and hounded Melo into a 9-for-23 performance. Hibbert spent part of the night in foul trouble but was a force whenever he was on the court, outplaying the more-heralded Tyson Chandler. For offense the reliably steady Hill stepped up with 26 points on 14 shots.
Much of the focus throughout this series has been on the Knicks and their shortcomings. So much so that it’s become a cliche to say that the Pacers are the better team while the Knicks have the better collection of talent. That’s only half right. This was a clinical performance by a team that has won five of its last six games in the postseason.
It’s important to understand how they got here and to do that we must start at the end with the 2004 Pacers, a combustible mix of talent and ego that blew up before it had a chance to attain greatness. The two teams are somewhat similar in style -- defensive monsters built from the inside out -- but in terms of temperament they couldn’t be further away from one another (see: Palace, Malice).
That team spectacularly immolated itself and the road back has taken almost a decade. This was no quick rebuilding project. It took years of grinding through the bad contracts and adding solid players like Granger, George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough while hitting big on draft gambles like George and Lance Stephenson. West is the only free agent of note and while he's been a very good player throughout his career he's hardly a franchise player.
They made the first big leap last season by advancing to the second round where they took a 2-1 lead on the Heat and had Miami on the ropes after Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal injury. But their inexperience got the better of them and they couldn’t deliver the big blow at home in Game 4.
What they did on Tuesday against New York was yet another step. But the job is not quite finished. Their defense will keep them in any game but they don’t have enough firepower to show up and assume things will take care of themselves. If they have absorbed their lessons fully they’ll take care of the Knicks sooner rather than later.
Of all the pseudo contenders in the East, the Pacers are the one team still on the upward trajectory. This is not a fluke and it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Get familiar with Indiana because with George and Hibbert in place they’ll be around for a while.