Paul George’s Improvement Goes Hand in Hand With Pacers’ Steady, Understated Excellence

Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers - Game OneDanny Granger suited up for only five games in the regular season, and the Indiana Pacers’ leading scorer from a year ago will not back at any point in these playoffs. At one time, Granger was the standout player on a bad-to-middling team, but now his main relevance to the Pacers is to reveal which observers have or have not been paying attention.

Through no fault of his own, the Pacers no longer really need Granger, who underwent season-ending knee surgery in early April. They could use his outside shooting, maybe, and his presence might help spread the floor for Roy Hibbert and David West in the post. The team has moved on, however, and Tuesday’s announcement that Paul George has been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player underscored just how far the Pacers are from the era when Granger was a vital element of their success.

George is now the face of the franchise — maybe not on billboards or on last-second possessions, but in style and substance he personifies the Pacers’ style. His performance in Game 1 of Indiana’s first-round playoff series against the Hawks was definitive. Despite shooting just 3-for-13 from the field, George was utterly dominant. His performance could not be captured on the stat sheet, yet he racked up 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds, while the Hawks put up 90 points without ever looking like much of a threat. Until LeBron James came out later that night and did normal LeBron things, George’s outing was the most impressive opener of this year’s playoffs.

It took less than two minutes into Sunday’s game against the Hawks for George to display his understated excellence. After a miss by Hawks guard Jeff Teague, George hopped over to grab the rebound and took the ball up the court himself. With apparent ease, George drove into the lane — “glided” might be a better word — drew an extra defender and kicked the ball out to a wide-open George Hill for a corner 3-pointer. In a matter of eight seconds, George did things normally reserved for a power forward, a slashing wing player and a point guard, respectively, to generate a basket without actually taking a shot himself. It went on like that, with George continuing to control the game even as he tossed up brick after brick.

As the stories of George’s award are written, you will read about all the bumps in George’s statistics. You will hear that he increased his scoring average to 17.4 from 12.1 points per game, boosted his rebounding to 7.6 from 5.6 per game and raised his assists per game by almost two-thirds, to 4.1 from 2.4.

None of that effectively explains why this award was so deserved for the third-year pro out of UNLV, but it is. When Indiana’s championship prospects come up, Granger’s absence occasionally gets mentioned as a knock against the Pacers. This is how Granger helps separate those who have been paying attention from those who have not. Anyone who has been tuned in all year knows that Granger would now be, at best, the Pacers’ fourth-best player. (The biggest impediment to a Pacers title is the guy in Miami with the headband and the receding hairline, not the loss of a very nice career 38-percent shooter from deep.)

The Pacers’ identity is different now. They are intimidating defensively, like Hibbert, their 7-foot-2 rim protector. They are deliberate and steady, like West, the old-school power forward with a soft shooting touch and a creative ability to score around the basket. They are versatile yet unassuming, like George, the guy who just keeps getting better.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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