Paul George thrives back on the big stage, leads Pacers to Game 1 win

Paul George had 33 points, six assists, four steals, and 4 rebounds. [Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

Paul George had 33 points, six assists, four steals, and 4 rebounds. [Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

Paul George missed these types of moments. He missed the big stage, being in that underdog role. That’s been the story of his basketball career.

The three-time NBA All-Star made clear Saturday afternoon, in front of a nationally televised audience (ESPN), that this was his team and that he was the best player in the series. He scored 27 of his game-high 33 points in less than 20 second-half minutes to propel the Pacers to a 100-90 win inside the Air Canada Centre.

The Pacers lead the series, 1-0.

See Also: At the Buzzer: R1 G1 — Pacers 100, Raptors 90

With the team’s ups and downs of the team during their 45-win season, it was hard to get a handle on the Pacers, who have just five players on their roster from their last postseason visit in 2014. The Raptors, meanwhile, posted a franchise-best 56 wins, including 32 at home, to own the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

They were the prohibitive favorites entering the series. FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Raptors an 82 percent chance of moving on to the conference semi-finals. Out of 21 ESPN NBA reporters, just one — who lives on the West Coast — thought the Pacers would win the series.

And that’s just fine with the Pacers. They prefer it that way, and have shown over the years to play better as the underdog.

[Pacers Podcast Ep. 18: Series preview with Michael Grange]

All the pressure was on the Raptors, a franchise that hasn’t gotten out of Round one in 15 years. And the tightness appeared obvious from the tip, particularly from their dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

“I knew we were going to have some (tightness),” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who was born in Indianapolis. “I didn’t know it was going to go as long. I knew we were going to be a little tight just by the Playoffs being here.

“We just played bad. We played terrible at home,” DeRozan, who managed 14 points on 5-of-19 shooting, said afterwards.

He refused to give George credit for his defense. “I just missed shots. … I’m pretty sure I won’t go 5-of-19 again,” he added.

[Broncos wish Paul George well in the playoffs, send him football autographed by John Elway]

George was brilliant in the final two quarters. After missing seven of nine shots, he took time during intermission to view his own set of video clips that assistant video coordinator Jhared Simpson had compiled for him. George credits that for his excellence in the second half: 10-of-13 from the field, including 4-for-4 from downtown, and 27 points.

“I just had to slow the game down,” George said. “Don’t get too rushed, let everything develop, see how they’re going to guard me, take my time, slow my dribble, and make the right plays. I’ve always been the guy watching. Watching D-West make plays, watching other guys ahead of me, Danny make the plays. This is my opportunity and this is my team. I have to be in that position to make those plays.”

“Awesome. (He’s) the biggest reason we won,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. ” … Paul’s shot-making late in the game was spectacular. It’s been a long road for him.”

The tireless work, the pain, and the self-doubt has been documented and written about over the last two years. His goal after being drafted was for the team to never be in the lottery again. They were, of course, last year and got a “blessing” able to use their No. 11 selection on Myles Turner, who contributed 10 points, five rebounds, and five blocks in his first playoff game.

[Paul George voted inaugural recipient of the Mel Daniels Award]

But George also stated that not being able to help the team last year, missing all but six games, get to the playoffs for one last time with that core bothered him.

“That was probably the biggest burden on me immediately after I got hurt,” he said. “… That hurt more than the actual break, not getting this team to the playoffs last year.”

On a team that lacks a go-to No. 2 player, this team will go as far as George (with a supporting cast) can take them. They are obviously not a championship contender but this team is admittedly eager to see what they can produce. After clinching a playoff spot, George even noted how this postseason was about something more.

“I think it’ll be great to get Myles [Turner] some playoff experience and really all of us,” he said back on April 10th. “This is a young group. We have a lot of time together. That can help us in the long run, looking in the future.”

It’s just one win and coach Vogel preaches not to get to high or low following wins or losses. They got exactly what they needed, and then some. You can’t help but wonder about where this Raptors team is at mentality. It’s their third straight year in the playoffs and every time, as the higher seed, they have lost at home in Game 1.

The Raptors, who shot 38 percent, insist this one is all on them and that it was just an off day. They were outscored by 21 points from 3-point land (four 3s to the Pacers’ 11) and their 20 turnovers resulted in 25 points for the Pacers. They owned the boards, outscored the Pacers by 16 in the paint, and tallied 17 second-chance points off of 20 offensive boards.

But they didn’t have an individual step up when they needed it, as Paul George did. Cory Joseph led the Raptors with a playoff career-high 18 points off the bench. Jonas Valanciunas recorded a double-double (12 points, 19 rebounds) before fouling out with 2:14 left in the game.

For the Pacers, leadership has been lacking. George talked about being the leader, saying “This is my time,” all the way back in July but we needed to see. On Saturday, we saw George go a long way in proving that he’s the guy — both with what he said postgame, and more importantly with his play on the court.

And the Pacers will need to see more of it from their best player Monday night. Game 2 is critical for the Raptors. They can’t afford to lose two games in their building and head to Indianapolis down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

“I don’t think they’re going to shoot like that again,” coach Casey said of Lowry and DeRozan.

[Click here to see the series schedule]

History bodes well for the Pacers: The winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series 77 percent of the time.

George’s injury is history and it’s amazing to just see him back in the postseason doing what he loves.

See Also: Paul George becomes PG-13

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