INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George insists it’s true: Instead of being unhappy with his teammates, the four-time All-Star just wants them to play better basketball.
As for the critics, well, they fall into a different category. Less than 48 hours after the Indiana Pacers star challenged two more players in a postgame news conference, George fired back at the notion that he was not supportive of his team.
“It’s complete ignorance, to be honest,” he said. “Everybody knows how close I am with my teammates and I said that only to motivate my teammates to win this series and win a championship. I didn’t say anything even close to throwing them under the bus. If I didn’t say nothing, it would have been another story.”
Twice, Indiana had chances to beat defending champion Cleveland on its home court. Both times, the Pacers failed in the final minute. If they can’t dig themselves out of an 0-2 deficit when the first-round series resumes in Indianapolis on Thursday night, George and Indiana will be facing an elimination game Sunday.
Still, George’s sharp, direct complaints after the first two games caught some off guard.
He complained that C.J. Miles should not have taken the final shot in the 109-108 Game 1 loss even though Miles had an open 14-footer. George, who is 0-for-14 in his career on potential go-ahead baskets in the final 20 seconds according to Basketball-Reference.com, wanted Miles to pass the ball back to him.
Then, after Tuesday’s 107-101 loss, George called on longtime friend Lance Stephenson to show more self-control and implored second-year center Myles Turner to get more physical. George also questioned the team’s defensive effort, and Indiana’s overall aggressiveness.
At age 26, George is still growing into the role of team leader and he has potentially 10s of millions of dollars riding on the media’s All-NBA teams. Like many other stars, George feels like he has a license to say what’s on his mind.
LeBron James, for instance, has not been silent about the personnel moves he thinks the Cavs should make and has never shied away from getting in teammates’ faces on the court. George named names, though the Pacers seemed to take no offense.
“In situations like that, our guys are free to speak and talk about situations like that,” coach Nate McMillan said. “You challenge your guys, your teammates. We believe in each other, we trust in each other and it was not a situation like there were hurt feelings in the locker room.”
In fact, George, Miles, Stephenson and Turner were smiling and laughing throughout practice Wednesday.
Turner acknowledged he must get more physical in this series, and Stephenson said he needs to find the balance between passion and playing out of control.
“When someone is scoring on you and you show frustration, they’re going to keep going at you and I think that’s what Paul was talking about,” Stephenson said after calling George his brother.
George is averaging 30.5 points, 7.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds in the first two games, similar to the numbers he had during a five-game winning streak that got the Pacers into the playoffs. His frustration likely runs deeper than two road losses in a first-round series against the defending champs.
Ever since Indiana took George at No. 10 overall in the 2010 draft, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward has envisioned bringing Indiana its first NBA title. Now the Pacers are two losses away from being eliminated by James’ team for the fourth time in six years, the first three while James played for Miami.
In February, George was rumored to be on the trading block and there have been constant questions since then about whether George would take a max deal to stay with the Pacers after next season or return to Los Angeles where he can try to help resurrect the Lakers’ franchise.
Right now, George just wants to win.
“I didn’t lose no sleep over it. I never do. Sometimes players just say things differently than coaches,” George said. “Everybody knows we (Stephenson and I) have a strong relationship. I didn’t say anything that’s going to cause any friction. We need Lance. He’s a leader in the locker room and we feed off his energy.”