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INDIANAPOLIS — The knock on All-Star Paul George heading into the playoffs was that he wasn’t playing like one.
Not even close.
Fortunately for the Indiana Pacers, the multi-skilled forward picked a good time to regain his All-Star form.
And he did so in historic fashion.
Becoming only the second player in franchise history to tally a postseason triple-double, George had 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds to help lead the Pacers to a 107-90 victory Sunday against the visiting Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
George, who made only 3 of 13 shots from the field but was 17 of 18 from the free-throw line, joins former point guard Mark Jackson as the only other Indiana player with a playoff triple-double. Jackson, now head coach of the Golden State Warriors, did it first in 1998 against the New York Knicks with 22 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists.
But more importantly for the Pacers than the historical significance of George’s accomplishment is what the victory itself did to rekindle their competitive fire.
In short, it worked wonders.
Losers of five of their final six regular-season games, including three straight heading into the playoffs, the third-seeded Pacers were looking for a way out of their late slide and found it in a convincing win where all five starters — and six players overall — scored in double figures.
“It was huge. It was huge for our confidence,” said George, who also had a blocked shot and a steal.
“We’re getting back to playing our style of basketball. My teammates were able to make shots, and I was trying to rebound the ball.
“I said for this playoff run I’m leaving everything on the floor.”
He did. Even when his shots weren’t falling, he found other ways to contribute. Like rebounding and distributing. And, as the the numbers reflect, aggressively attacking the basket, getting to the foul line and making the most of the opportunities when he got there.
George’s 17 made free throws matched the Pacers’ playoff record, set by Reggie Miller in 1993 and duplicated by Miller in 1994.
“He was all over the place, and that’s who Paul George is,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He makes the All-Star team not because he’s averaging 28 a game like (Kevin) Durant or Carmelo (Anthony). He’s one of one of the most complete players in the game.
“He impacts the game in so many different ways — defense, rebounding, steals, blocks, offensive rebounding, three-point shooting, getting to the free throw line, the extra pass, he’s one of the most complete players in the game.”
Yet George, who reached double figures in only two of his previous five outings, wasn’t the only player making an impact for a team desperate to break out of its malaise.
Point guard George Hill had 18 points on 7 of 10 shooting, including 3 of 4 three-point attempts. Center Roy Hibbert had 16 points and eight rebounds, and forward David West and guard Lance Stephenson had 13 points each. West also had nine rebounds, and Stephenson — who was 5 of 9 from the floor — contributed a game-high three steals and four assists.
And that was just what the starters produced.
Backups Jeff Pendergraph and Tyler Hansbrough had 11 and nine points, respectively. Hansbrough added five rebounds, as did reserve guard Orlando Johnson.
Although the Pacers understand the series is far from over, they insist the Game 1 effort is more indicative of what their true identity as an aggressive defensive team that thrives on rebounding and energy.
Indiana outrebebounded the sixth-seeded Hawks 48-32 and limited their season scoring leaders Josh Smith and Al Horford to 15 and 14 points, respectively. Former Pike High School star Jeff Teague led Atlanta with 21 points.
“Ultimately, we have to depend on our defense,” West said. “We’re just going to continue to play the we have played all year, rely on our defense and continue to tighten the screws in that regard. We need to take care of the ball, which I thought we did an OK job of.
“That’s ultimately the keys for us.”
That, and continue to get consistent production from their lone All-Star, who is now in an exclusive postseason triple-double club.
“I’m happy for him. He earned it. He works extremely hard,” Hibbert said. “I had to ask him just to ease up after he got the triple-double. I’m happy for him. He deserves it.
“He’s a hell of a player, and I believe in him.”
So does Hill.
“I’m happy for him. It’s a great accomplishment for him,” Hill said. “But like he said, it doesn’t matter. He just wants to do what it takes to win a basketball game. He has high potential, and we expect him to play like that.”
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