The first quarter of the 2016-17 season has been a rocky one for the Indiana Pacers' franchise player, Paul George.
True enough, that's mostly because George has missed seven of the team's 24 games due primarily to an ankle injury. However, even taking the contests preceding his absence into account, the three-time All-Star has experienced an up-and-down campaign in terms of plus-minus. Whether that inconsistency was caused directly by George's fluctuating field-goal efficiency or just overall team play when the Pacers (12-12) fell behind to teams early, it has been there.
Through 24 games in 2015-16, Paul George was averaging 26.2 points per game; through the first 24 this season, he has averaged just 21.8 per game. Again, George has dealt with an ankle injury and the Pacers, on the whole, have not been a good defensive team, allowing several teams to jump out to fast starts and insurmountable leads. But all in all, George hasn't been playing at the MVP-caliber level at which he played to begin the previous season.
Could he have turned the corner to returning to that level Saturday?
Once again, the Pacers allowed a formidable scoring team, the Portland Trail Blazers, to charge to an early lead that reached 20 points. An 11-point second quarter by George spearheaded an Indiana rally to bring the Pacers within seven to end the first half. The Pacers stayed within eight to end the third quarter, gained a lead and fell back behind four points with just more than six minutes remaining, and from there, the PG-13 movie was on. George ripped off 13 points in the final six minutes, highlighting the surge with an emphatic dunk off his own missed shot to put Indy up five and effectively seal the deal.
It was the kind of performance befitting a franchise centerpiece, a close-out effort we've seen from George plenty of times before but that was especially reassuring at this juncture. The Pacers certainly are still trying to figure out what kind of team they are; their defensive issues are likely to persist given the construction of the roster -- particularly the redundancy and lack of size and general defensive awareness at the guard positions. But the Pacers can at least take solace in knowing they still have a player who can take over games when needed, someone who can raise the level of play of his teammates (Indiana held Portland to 13 points in the fourth quarter after allowing 98 in the first three and 71 in the first half; that undoubtedly occurred thanks to added intensity sparked by George).
As the Pacers head into the meat of their season, knowing their top guy could be on the rebound and back to playing at a high level has to be a relief.