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Explaining Paul George’s atypical January

The four-time All-Star capped his best month of the season with his finest performance of the season.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The winter doldrums tend to take their toll on Paul George. In 2014, signs of The Struggle were slowly beginning to burrow their way into Indiana’s collective soul. In 2015, he was sidelined, and last season his legs were tired and worn out from getting reacquainted with the rigors of an 82-game season.

This pattern abruptly stopped with January of 2017.

In what has historically been his worst month, George averaged a season-best 24.5 points on 47.8 percent shooting while attempting a season-high six free throws per game. Notably, his productivity only improved as January wore on.

Over the final week of the month, George spearheaded a 3-1 record for the Pacers, averaging 32.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three. By cracking the 30-point mark for a fourth-straight game against the Houston Rockets, George tied the longest such scoring streak of his career. He also tied his career-high in free throw attempts during his team’s second come from behind victory over the Sacramento Kings on Friday, going 16-of-17 from the charity stripe.

This was a positive development, considering that he currently leads the league in free throw accuracy (92.6%), but doesn’t rank among the top-20 in free throw attempts.

On the season, the Pacers are 7-2 when George scores 30 or more points, but the return of his signature lockdown defense proved arguably more vital to his team’s most complete performance of the season on Sunday. By utilizing the full length of his 83-inch wingspan to consistently overplay James Harden’s left hand, George more than contributed to the MVP candidate’s worst shooting performance of the season, in which Houston’s point guard connected on only 17.6 percent of his 17 field goal attempts and committed eight turnovers. Harden also finished the contest minus-23, his lowest plus-minus of the season.

From January 23-29, only Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum logged more total miles (5.1) on defense than Indiana’s star (5.0), and the Pacers were a gargantuan 47.1 points per 100 possessions better with George on the floor as opposed to the bench over that same span of time.

So, what’s to account for this vast departure from his mid-winter norm?

It may be that January is George’s new November. He’s proven himself prone to hot streaks. It’s impossible to quantify, but it’s likely that debuting his signature shoe and making his fourth NBA All-Star team may have acted as added incentives. Jeff Teague’s caring and sharing certainly helped. More telling, though, is that his spike in productivity has coincided with an improved free throw attempt rate.

FTr is number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt

What’s interesting here is that there is no correlation between George’s shot distribution month-over-month and his free throw rate. Put simply, taking more shots nearer to the rim hasn’t, in and of itself, generated more trips to the line for Indiana’s star.

Instead, it seems George has benefited from altering his approach. Rather than purposefully trying to draw contact, he’s trying to score through contact.

It’s easy to spot the difference.

Here, in a late-December game against the Chicago Bulls, George’s steps are measured. He’s expecting the whistle to blow and ends up taking an off-balanced layup.

Compare that to this drive against Houston’s Ryan Anderson, in which he simply puts his head down, finishes at the rim, and draws the foul.

February’s schedule isn’t January’s, but if George — now with his ankle fully healed — can continue to get to the line like he did over the last month, six more weeks of this sort of winter won’t be such a bad thing.