The 2014 Defensive Player of the Year voting may not have reflected it, but Paul George was one of the stoutest defenders in the league last season. With Roy Hibbert laying in wait at the rim, Indiana's 6-9 small forward was free to mercilessly hound his opponent's passing lanes with the full length of his 83 inch wingspan. Where others may have been lured into gambling for steals with the Kingpin of verticality always there to play the role of a security blanket, George remained disciplined and precise.
He was the only player in the league last season to record at least 470 defensive rebounds, 150 steals and 20 blocks. Tasked with guarding the other team's best player, George allowed just 97.0 points per 100 possessions (3rd best in league) and ranked second in the league in defensive win shares (6.4).
When Stephen Curry scored 19 points through three quarters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse last season, Indiana's defensive chameleon held the now MVP candidate scoreless in the final frame, all while forcing the smooth operator into three fourth quarter turnovers. When the Pacers desperately needed an answer against Jeff Teague in the playoffs, Paul George's number was called to corral him -- an in-series adjustment which likely saved Indiana's season.
The highlight dunks are all well and good, but it is these moments, which define Paul George's prowess as a two-way player, that make him so special.
And he knows it.
"Just to be moving defensively," George said when asked what he envisioned as an "I'm back" type of moment. "I think, still being a shut down defender."
Being a shut down defender. Not doing windmills. Not knocking down threes. Locking down his opponent.
On Saturday, the two-time All-Star cautioned fans not to expect to see a "40-50 point Paul George" against the Miami Heat on Easter Sunday. The same should probably be said of his defense. Having not played in 7-8 months, the "All-Defense Paul George" also likely still needs time to start trusting his body again and, as he terms it, make sure he "does everything equally."
"That's going to come," George said with regard to him returning to form as a premier defender. "Just knowing that I can move and change direction laterally, that will be a moment where confidence will come back, trusting the body will come back. And then I'll know I'm ready."
When Paul George injured his leg, he was attempting to block a lay-up by James Harden on the fast break. He refused, though playing in a scrimmage, to give up on the play. His determination to contest that shot took him away from the game for almost a full season. But that same never-say-die attitude, is precisely what will prove he's ready to be back.
For more on Paul George's return to basketball, check out the links: