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April 22, 2013

Pacers’ George eager to prove season was no fluke

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s Paul George is already thinking big.

He wants that breakout regular season to become the norm and hopes Sunday’s triple-double is just the start of a far more tangible prize.

This is how George rolls — never satisfied with past performances, always intent on proving the doubters wrong — and it will be no different when the Pacers line up for Game 2 against Atlanta on Wednesday night. George’s mission: Proving he can be even better.

“I don’t want people to think it’s a one game type of thing,” he said after Monday’s practice. “I want to do outdo myself from Game 1.”

That won’t be easy after George finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists, tied Reggie Miller’s playoff record by going 17-of-17 from the free-throw line before missing his final attempt, joined Mark Jackson as the only players in the franchise’s NBA history to produce a triple-double in the playoffs and was every bit as efficient on defense.

The result was a resounding 107-90 victory to give Indiana its first 1-0 lead in a playoff series since 2006.

For George, it’s still not good enough.

He spent last summer trying to become a more aggressive, reliable playoff performer, and he learned from the best — reigning MVP LeBron James of the defending champion Heat. The two met in Las Vegas as part of Team USA’s preparation for the Olympics, and they also spent time together in Asia doing endorsement appearances. Their friendship has remained strong throughout the season, and whatever James said or did certainly helped George.

He played nearly as many minutes during this past regular season as he did in the previous two combined. His scoring average jumped from 12.1 points in 2011-12 to 17.4 this season, and George went from being a secondary scoring option to being the primary scorer, the Pacers’ best defender and a first-time All-Star.

But the real test was supposed to be the playoffs, and George wasted no time Sunday proving he could live up to the hype.

“I like the pressure. I want to continue to hold up under the pressure,” he said. “My teammates know that I’ll do whatever it takes for us to advance.”

Coaches and teammates have no doubt George will contribute any way possible because they’ve seen it repeatedly over the past three seasons.

When the 6-foot-9 swingman was a 19-year-old sophomore star at Fresno State, he caught the Pacers’ attention because he was one of the last players to leave the court during draft workouts.

His commitment never changed. George, who turns 23 next week, is often seen on the team’s practice court shooting by himself before games and when practice officially ends, he and Lance Stephenson, George’s draft classmate in 2010, usually stick around to take even more shots as associate head coach Brian Shaw provides instructions.

And two of pro basketball’s biggest names — James and Larry Bird — just happen to be two of his biggest fans, too.

Bird, the former Pacers president and Hall of Fame player, has called George one of the top five young players he’s been around. James has repeatedly said the blessing of Danny Granger’s season-long knee injury was that it gave George a chance to emerge.

They are far from being the only supporters in George’s corner.

“He’s had the talent to do it, and now he’s getting an opportunity,” coach Frank Vogel said. “It’s just growth and opportunity. He was going to be successful at some point in his career. But it’s not only that he has the talent, he has the desire to improve, too.”

While many look at his stats and see a steady progression over the past three seasons, George’s biggest asset may be doing all the little things to make plays. Late in Sunday’s game, George had the presence of mind to tip his 10th rebound to Stephenson on the wing. Stephenson then swung the ball to David West, who drove in for a layup, drew a foul and made the free throw to turn a nine-point lead into a 12-point cushion that essentially sealed the game with 4:23 to go.

The Hawks spent most of the game complaining about those sorts of calls.

George wound up taking more than half of Indiana’s 34 free throws, shooting more (18) than the entire Atlanta team. The Hawks know that’s one disparity they must close if they hope to steal a win in Indy before heading home for Games 3 and 4.

“Looking at the stat sheet, free throws and offensive rebounds are the two biggest things that I see,” Atlanta forward Kyle Korver said. “We have to play defense without fouling, and we have to control the boards a little better.”

Drawing fouls was a big part of George’s plan.

After making just 19 of 52 shots in the Pacers’ Eastern Conference semifinal loss a year ago, George came back with a different philosophy.

“It’s about me staying low,” he explained. “Everything I worked on during the summer was about staying low, exploding out of my moves so I could beat guys off the dribble.”

So far, he’s been doing that with regularity.

But the question now is whether he can keep it up through the entire playoffs. George insists, like he always does, that it won’t be a problem.

“I don’t want to be labeled as a scorer or a defender — I want to be a ballplayer,” he said. “That’s what I hang my hat on is being a guy that can do a lot of things on the court.”

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