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Why Paul George’s Olympic journey serves as a microcosm for this season

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George’s defensive frustration in Rio should have been a bad omen for the Pacers.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Paul George looked drained and at times listless as the Pacers fell behind early to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night.

Effortlessly outrebounded by Rajon Rondo twice on the same possession, this was the sort of play which seemed to carry with it broader implications than one wholly avoidable second-chance basket.

Of course, it’s no secret that the three-time All-Star — who has dealt with on-again, off-again ankle soreness while bearing a heightened burden on both ends of the floor — has worn his frustration with his team’s lack of player movement and devaluation of defense on his sleeve for much of the season.

George’s intermittent slippage in mental focus isn’t the cause of what ails the Pacers; it’s an easily traceable side effect. Him exhibiting more unquantifiable passion might perhaps treat some of the team’s acute symptoms, but it isn’t going to cure the chronic underlying disease.

Rather, an examination of the notable dichotomy between George’s disparate roles with Team USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio should shed some light on the current plight of the consistently inconsistent Indiana Pacers.

“Defensively is where we have to man up,” George told Time’s Sean Gregory following the Americans too close for comfort Group A win over Serbia. “In our game, there’s movement obviously. With these guys, it’s constant movement. We talked about it in the back. You never sit still. In our game, there are moments when you sit still. You can have a rest period. You might get action that guys just run on one side. You’re constant moving from side to side. They don’t get tired.”

George’s patience with the first unit’s complacent defense had already worn noticeably (and familiarly) thin after only his first game replacing Klay Thompson in the starting lineup.

Coach K’s early-tournament stubbornness with regard to playing Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, and DeMarcus Cousins simultaneously left Paul George scrambling to cover for a multitude of inexcusable defensive sins on one end while the offense routinely devolved into stagnant isolation plays on the other.

Struggling to find his fit alongside several ball-dominant scorers, Indiana’s star returned to the bench prior to the medal rounds where he thrived alongside Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, and Draymond Green converting defense into easy offense.

The talent disparity, stylistic differences, and rule variations prevent FIBA competition from being directly compared to the NBA, but it was evident in Rio that George, who has a tendency to be sloppy with the ball and struggles to punish smaller guards on the block, was more at home finishing offense as the focal point of the defensive-oriented second unit than he was plugging holes on defense and initiating offense beside Kyrie Irving as Team USA’s starting shooting guard.

Out of necessity, George logged heavy minutes with the starters in the Gold Medal game against Serbia. Tasked with utilizing the full length of his 83-inch wingspan to corral Milos Teodosic’s constant movement on the perimeter, the two-way star was a key contributor finishing the game plus-37 while shooting only 2-of-9 from the field.

Alas, without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Carmelo Anthony’s 42-point scoring average to fall back on, transforming Paul George into a defensive specialist isn’t an option for the Pacers.

Indiana is 4-8 (0.333) in games when George scores at or below his 2016-17 scoring average. They’re 9-6 (0.600) when he racks up at least 21 points.

Reaching that bench mark on a more consistent basis would be easier if he weren’t constantly being called upon to put out random fires on the defensive end.

For instance, a bad loss against the New Orleans Pelicans was made worse by the fact that Buddy Hield, who scored a career-high 21 points against the Pacers, had to be cooled off by Paul George late in the third quarter after the three-time All-Star had already spent a handful of possessions chasing Jrue Holiday around.

With Glenn Robinson III being victimized on the block early and often by Chicago’s crafty perimeter players on Monday night, Paul George was forced to alternate between both Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler.

This is an enormous load to carry which should at least partially explain why he didn’t eclipse the 20-point threshold in either of those contests.

Larry Bird’s ill-conceived attempt to improve the team’s offensive efficiency was presumably done with the intent of lessening George’s two-way burden. However, Indiana’s sporadic attempts to outrun opponents, without the benefit of consistent off-ball threats or sound defense, has produced the exact opposite result.

Comparing Paul George’s place in Team USA’s starting lineup to the 2016-17 Indiana Pacers may require looking for forests rather than trees, but the wider trends are no less evident. The main difference being that the former was better equipped to rest on their laurels to overcome uninspired defense than the latter.

“Our identity is inconsistency,” George told the Indy Star’s Nate Taylor after the Pacers failed to rally against the Boston Celtics. “We’ve yet to spread from the pack (in the Eastern Conference) and we’ve yet to string some games together. We’ve yet to take a step back and look at the big picture and point out some things that we’re doing well over the course of this season. So really, we have nothing to really fall back on right now.”

Little by little Paul George has allowed moments of sapped energy and effort to creep into his role as the team’s franchise player, but those lapses certainly didn’t construct Indiana’s roster.