After chucking up a turd in the last game against the Warriors in his last game, Paul George came to play tonight against the Bulls in Chicago, putting up an efficient 34 points on 14-25 shooting to go with 9 rebounds as the Pacers survived with an 80-76 victory.
Importantly, the win puts the Pacers back to 0.500 at 9-9, which puts them in a three-way tie for first place in the Central division along with the Bulls and the Bucks. It also ends an unexpectedly successful 3-1 road trip, showing perhaps the Pacers are back on track for the season. Maybe.
It was again an ugly, low-scoring and low-percentage game between two strong defensive teams. The Bulls had been struggling somewhat without Derrick Rose and recently lost Richard Hamilton to injury as well, so I guess you could say the Pacers caught a bit of a break. They also caught a break on what was effectively the Bulls' final offensive possession of the game. With the Pacers up 78-76, Luol Deng drove down the basline and was challenged by Roy Hibbert. Hibbert went pretty much straight up and Deng flailed his arms hoping for a call, but no whistle came. That was essentially the ball game as David West grabbed the ball, got fouled, and calmly sank two freebies to ice it.
Speaking of West (who has been BEAST lately), he had an off night shooting the ball and finished with just 10 points, but the dude was still huge down the stretch with some nifty passing and the aforementioned free throws. It's frightening to think that he will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year and no one knows if he intends to stay. If he leaves the Pacers might as well blow things up and start over from the bottom.
Two more things. First, Roy Hibbert's defense continues to be strong, and he showed glimpses in the third quarter that he can still be a solid offensive player if he gets the ball at the right spots. His confidence appears to be returning but he's still missing too many shots right up at the rim — he should be making these in his sleep. It's inexcusable for any player, let alone a 7-2 NBA player on a max contract.
Secondly, the bench continues to be a scary bag of vomit. Every starter, including Hibbert, played at least 34 minutes tonight, with Paul George looking really tired by the end after playing 41 minutes. Every time the Pacers went to the bench the Bulls made a run. It's ridiculous.
When Danny Granger returns it will shift Lance Stephenson to the bench, instantly making him the team's best reserve, which makes me shudder just thinking about it. Ian Mahinmi is showing flashes of decency but Gerald Green remains all over the shop and DJ Augustin has descended beyond rock bottom. Tyler Hansbrough's shooting is not that far behind either.
I love watching the Pacers starters play, but if they keep playing so many minutes I'm sure they're going to wear down before the season ends and it's not going to be pretty. I think a trade of some sort is needed eventually because they can't wait forever for the bench to live up to its potential.