Q AND A: PAUL GEORGE
You can just tell when a team is ready. There is a focus, a seriousness of purpose, from the start of training camp. Personal agendas are discarded; the "honey-dos," as Rick Mahorn used to call them, are cast to the side. The five players on the court look connected, as if there's a rubber band attached from player to player. And there's almost always a clear-cut alpha male, the leader, the player in whom the others believe and trust.
The Pacers have that look. And Paul George is that player.
That doesn't mean Indiana doesn't need David West posting up in the fourth quarter or Roy Hibbert patrolling the paint every night, the hub of Indiana's league-best defense under Coach Frank Vogel.
It means the 23-year-old George is now entrusted to make the decisions that matter, on both ends of the court and in the locker room. It means the All-Star and 2012 Most Improved Player needs a new goal: League MVP. It means he has to do more than just shoot jumpers -- a talent at which he excels -- and become more of a playmaker. It means George has to continue his close, friction-free, sibling-like relationship with Danny Granger, with whose family George lived during the summer in California while he was training, with whom he's been close since before George was taken 10th overall in the 2010 Draft, and who used to be the face of the franchise.
It means George has to continue to guard every point guard and wing player of consequence -- from Derrick Rose to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, each of whom he's guarded regularly for the Pacers -- without complaint. It means George has to do more than he did in last spring's Eastern Conference finals against Miami, when he had great moments but also let James get to the basket for a game-winning layup in Game 1, and went a quiet 2 of 9 from the floor in the decisive Game 7.
It means George has to live up to the five-year max contract that could reach $90 million on which he and the Pacers agreed in August. It means Indiana has to slay the Heat Dragon and get past the team that has knocked it out of the playoffs the last two seasons. It means George has to lead the Pacers to a Finals appearance while the team's window is wide open.
No pressure or anything.
Me: I know what you do in November in terms of wins and losses doesn't always matter later, but I get the sense that it's important to this club to set a tone early.
Paul George: Yeah. Well, we want to be aggressive and start to play well to start the year off. We understand how important the first seed is, and we don't want to wait until, you know, March, June, late in the year. We want to start to play well and start to earn the first seed and get in position to get the first seed. We want to take care of business when we can and try to control everything from the start of the season.
Me: This group seems connected. What have you noticed over the last year that's brought that about?
PG: Everybody, all the returners came back and added something new. And just the experience of us being together going on three or four years now, everybody knows what to expect from one another. And there's a chemistry there that you really can't break. A lot of teams try to assemble teams, put teams together and put guys together, but you've got to jell well. And I think that's the key for us.
Me: Roy says that because you've had to guard all the wings and elite point guards the last couple of years, that he's felt obligated to have your back defensively in order to save your legs for the fourth quarters on offense. Did you talk with him about that or did it just happen?
PG: Roy's always talking. He's always told me, I've got your back, I'll protect the rim. And that gives me the confidence to go out and really pressure up. Because I know I've got one of the best rim protectors in the game. It makes my job easier, and I try to help the same way, and help him down low on digs, and being active on the bigs' spots.
Me: Do you see teams attacking you differently when you're on defense because he's behind you?
PG: I've been getting a lot more postups. They're really trying to post up and use the strength of bigger guys on me. I'm fine with it. I've got the length. Strength is an area I can get better at, but I feel comfortable down there.
Me: How have you tried to get stronger the last couple of summers?
PG: It's really just strengthening my legs and my core. I think running hills and the mountains over the summer really helped me, not only conditioning but in strengthening my legs.
Me: I'm sure you knew they were going to extend you. Did you think about how that would create major expectations on you from the outside?
PG: Not really. Not really. I didn't want to press about it. I didn't want it to have any affect on me out on the court. I was going to continue to come out and play my game. I had been training for a big year before I signed the contract. And I knew what to expect coming into this year, because it was going to be a big year for me. I didn't allow the contract to play any role in how I performed out on the court.
Me: Do you think your arc as a basketball player -- where you grew up, where you went to college, what team drafted you -- all sort of fits together? There seems to be consistency there in terms of how that all allowed you to kind of develop organically, without some of the pressures that other players have.
PG: It did. I've been overshadowed so much, it's now to the point where I want you guys to know who I am, I want you to be able to respect my game and respect what I do out on the court. I think all of that did fuel me and it's keeping me motivated and it's giving me that drive now.
Me: Where does one get that athletic arrogance you have to have on the court? 'Cause you've got to have that.
PG: You have to. You have to. All the elites do. They bring it to the game. I picked that up. I learned that being around guys, being on Team USA, All-Star Weekend. It's a level they carry themselves. That's what I picked up the most.
Me: What has Frank said about what more he wants from you this season?
PG: He wants me to be a floor general. That was a role I tried to step into and really tried to step into last year and play into that role. But this year it's a definite that he wanted me to be a floor general, a late game scorer for us. Just be productive throughout the whole game.
Me: You were always good coming off of screens and in screen-rolls. When did playmaking become more important to you?
PG: I knew it was that time. I knew, eventually, I was going to have to step into that role, and I wanted to step into that role. I knew it was just going to take time. With all the elite guys we've got here, David West is still a late scorer for us, and George (Hill) can make shots, and Roy is a contributor for us late in games. It was moreso me wanting to have that role and step into another role this year.
Me: When you were living at the Grangers this summer, did you pay rent?
PG: I did. (Laughs). He forgot we was teammates then.
Me: What were the days like out there training?
PG: I worked out in the mornings, and the morning workouts were mostly ballhandling, iso moves, iso spots. And then through the day, I would run through the mountains. And I would do that three or four times a week.
Me: What did you think about while you were running?
PG: Just pushing through it. Just pushing through the exhaustion. A lot of times, I was winded, I was exhausted. But that Game 7 kept popping up. Not having the energy and not being able to push through, I didn't want to have that feeling again. So that was my motivation, running the mountains.