Two weeks ago, a bad game got worse against the Washington Wizards when Paul George momentarily left the court during the fourth quarter due to tightness behind his right knee. Then, eight days later in Sacramento, he was seen having his legs stretched by the team's athletic trainer, and he later told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner that he "took a couple blows" to his left leg and it started to "swell up" and "get tight."
Tired and worn out from getting reacquainted with the rigors of an 82-game season and leading the Pacers in total minutes played after significant time away from the game, it should come as little surprise that Indiana's two-way star is shooting just 29 percent from three (20 percentage points below his blistering November conversion rate) over his last 10 games. Consider this: Just seven players in the NBA have run the equivalent of 4.2 marathons this season. Paul George is the only one to do so with a rebuilt leg.
Given George's current struggle with durability and endurance from playing at the wing, Indiana's preseason earnestness to use him as the team's starting power forward seems almost foolhardy in hindsight. Yet, somehow, Larry Bird interprets his mid-season slide as further proof the two-way star would have been better off switching positions.
"My vision was (Paul George) would play more of the four, not all of the time, but play it more. Paul's a good rebounder. If he played the four he'd be a better rebounder," Bird said in a recent Q-and-A with Pacers.com's Mark Montieth and 1070 the Fan's Conrad Brunner. "But I understand. He's coming off a serious leg injury. He's going to hit spurts like he's hit here. It's tough sitting out a year and coming back. That's why I wanted him at the four more (laughing), so he wouldn't have to guard (on the perimeter)."
It's true. Power forwards aren't typically tasked with corralling opposing guards mano a mano as Paul George did against Jeff Teague Thursday night, but they do trail stretch-fours through mazes of picks. They are tasked with hedging on pick-and-rolls and quickly retreating to the paint to keep opponents off the offensive glass. And they do have to battle more imposing bodies on the block, something Shane Battier readily admitted took its toll during his tenure with the Miami Heat.
"It's just a lot of banging, especially if you don't have the beef, the mass. It wears on you," Battier explained to ESPN's Zach Lowe on the 'The Lowe Post,' later tagging on."...If I had to guard a guy who was a high post-up guy, a guy like Zach Randolph or Carlos Boozer and if I had to guard him for multiple possessions, I was tired."
But Bird doesn't necessarily seem to buy into this notion, either.
"I don't think he got beat up," Indiana's head honcho said in reference to the notion that C.J. Miles may be worn down from battling bigger bodies. "The four position is not like it used to be. It's not a battle down there. He's got to box out. Yeah, he's giving up size. I don't think it's as tough as everybody thinks it is."
Wear and tear aside, Bird's master plan to use George as the four-man was, quite frankly, flawed from the start. More so, once the team's best player proved himself capable of being named Player of the Month upon his return. With George averaging 29.5 points on 47 percent shooting in November, no shrewd opponent was going to check Indiana's supernova star with a slower power forward, anyway. That task was reserved for DeMarre Carroll, not Luis Scola. LeBron James, not Kevin Love. Tony Allen, not Zach Randolph. And this was the case even with C.J. Miles shooting 43 percent from three over that same span of time.
If Indiana wants to revive its pace and space experiment, the better option is to continue doing what head coach Frank Vogel did against the Atlanta Hawks, which is to play Myles Turner, who poured in 20 points on 9-of-17 shooting, alongside Ian Mahinmi. With Turner, Indiana gains a dead-eye shooter, currently more capable of pulling converging defenders away from George, without giving up size on the defensive end. Prior to Thursday's lopsided victory, Bird seemed hesitant to make that move quite yet.
"I think some of the guys feel until Myles gets better, we have to go with two bigs all the time. Then when he gets going, yeah, we can play him and the other big together and achieve what I want to achieve."
George, despite the lineup makeover, still struggled to find the bottom of the rim against the Hawks. Converting just two of his eleven field goal attempts in 30 minutes of action, as he faded on several of his catch-and-shoot transition three-point attempts and struggled to get much lift on his mid-range pull-up jumpers. Bird postulates that his fatigue may be as much, or more, mental as it is physical.
"When Paul plays well, everything is fine. When he isn't making his shots, he gets down on himself. It's not easy out there. I sat out a year before, and you do get fatigued, but most of it's mental fatigue. You feel sorry for yourself. You have to fight through that. You have to move on to the next game and the next practice. You have to keep working and you'll come out of it," Bird explained to Montieth and Brunner.
"Well, you always work harder. You know, it's amazing, your mind will always play games on you in this league, because everything's a routine, everything's the same every day. The better players always fight through the mental fatigue. It's just like you hear a guy, one of the best players in the league, is sick. And he goes out and plays great. (People say) he must not have been that sick. No. He blocks it out of his mind and he fights through it.
Mental fatigue in this league brings so many guys down it's unbelievable. They give in to it. You can't give in to mental fatigue. You just have to work harder. Your body can do anything you want it to do. If you're not really injured and you're fighting mental fatigue, you can fight through that. I've done it. I've seen guys do it. I played with players (who said before the game), "Man, I can't hardly move, but when I step out there I know I'll be ready." And they played their (tails) off. Because your mind plays games on you. Especially when your job is to run.
I think Paul's going through a little of that and I think he'll get through it. He's our guy and yeah, he'll need rest, but I'd like to see his itinerary for All-Star break (laughing). He'll have energy come All-Star break."
The two-time All-Star, himself, admitted to the Indy Star's Nate B. Taylor that pushing through "soreness in his legs" and not being able to do the things he was doing earlier in the season is weighing on his "body" as well as his "mental approach."
Unfortunately, the Pacers did not move sooner to lessen his burden.
Typically, George plays the entire first frame of games before taking an ample break at the beginning of the second quarter. Against the Los Angeles Clippers, Frank Vogel took him out with 2:00 minutes remaining. But the move to prioritize rest was short lived, as the starting small forward still racked up 38 minutes of playing time for the game. Battling foul trouble throughout the first half, Thursday's contest with Atlanta marked only the second time he's played 30 or fewer minutes in his last 22 games. A real oddity, when just 21 players in the entire league average over 35 minutes per game. Only two of those players are returning from significant injury.
Need more proof of his tired legs? Just take a look at George's improvement when he has multiple days of rest as opposed to none.
So, instead of questioning the now three-time All-Star's mental fortitude or pointing out the team's lack of vocal leadership, perhaps it is time for the Blue & Gold to admit that maybe, just maybe... too much is being expected of Paul George, far too soon.