INDIANAPOLIS — After coming up with a steal and hitting two free throws to ice the game in his first outing back in Indiana since being traded in June, Paul George walked off the floor Wednesday night and handed his shoes to the son of former teammate Monta Ellis.
“I’m glad the circus is over with; now everybody can move on,” George said. “I understood what the environment was going to be coming into to tonight. My teammates did a great job of helping me battle this one tonight.”
His return to the arena that he called home for his first seven NBA seasons didn’t go entirely as planned for George (he finished with 12 points on 3 of 14 shooting), except for the winning part, as the Oklahoma City Thunder held on for a 100-95 decision over the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“Wish we could do it again,” George said with a smile. “It sucks being in the West, because it’s over with. Yeah, I’m happy the circus is over with. Everybody can move on.”
In terms of fan reaction, the night for George went just as he expected, with boos showering him during introductions and then every time he touched the ball. George said the emotions of the game didn’t affect how he played, though he had four turnovers in the first half and didn’t make his first bucket until three minutes left in the second quarter.
“Like I said earlier, I understood what the environment was gonna be coming into it, so it wasn’t a surprise,” George said. “I played over 300-something games here. I was comfortable. It had nothing to do with the boos. I just missed shots.”
George wasn’t the only one to struggle making shots for the Thunder, as Carmelo Anthony hit only 4-of-14, Russell Westbrook went 3-of-17 and the big three combined for 34 points on 10 of 45 shooting. It has been a theme throughout the season for the three stars, with contests featuring low efficiency shooting stacking on top of each other.
The Thunder were able to find a way against the Pacers behind some stingy defense and big games from role players, particularly Steven Adams (23 points and 13 rebounds), Alex Abrines (14 points) and Patrick Patterson (8 points).
The shooting issues have been confounding, and if the Thunder are going to find their potential, it’s something that has to improve.
“I think we’re not used to [open shots], maybe?” Anthony said. “The way we get the shots, the way we get the ball, none of us are used to having it in that position, having it in certain spots on the court. Maybe being that wide open sometimes. But I don’t know, we still gotta make shots. If we miss open shots, we miss open shot; can’t really do nothing about that but keep shooting.”
But the Thunder made enough plays to hold off a late charge from the Pacers, as Indiana came back from 11 points down with five minutes remaining to cut it to a single point with 40 seconds left. Abrines tipped in a miss with 15.3 seconds left, and George stole the inbounds pass as the Pacers tried to get the ball to Victor Oladipo.
“Vic is their guy here, right? Right?” George said. “Don’t let him get the ball. Simple. Ballgame.”
Oladipo finished with 19 points on 9 of 26 shooting, with George serving primarily as his defender.
“It was the first time I’ve had a defender like that guard me since I’ve been on this team,” Oladipo said of George. “They were just trying to deny me, and he can move his feet. It was something new for me. I’ll be ready if there’s anybody else like that out there, so I just have to continue to learn from that and continue to get better.”
George’s two regular-season matchups with the Pacers are now in the books, and he went 2-0. He mentioned multiple times about “moving on” and stressed to Pacers fans to embrace Oladipo as the new face of their franchise.
“Vic is the face of Indiana. Vic is the future of Indiana,” George said. “I’m along with Indiana on this Victor wave. He’s gonna be great here. He’s blessed and he’s talented. He’s what you want in a guy for a franchise.
“Let’s put all this to rest for what it is. I had an amazing seven years here. I was blessed to play in front of a great Indiana fan base, which as you saw tonight, they showed up and showed out. I’m grateful. I’m grateful to play in this organization. But ultimately, I didn’t achieve what I wanted to do here and I moved on. Both sides moved on, and let’s all move on.”
Next up for the Thunder is a stop in Philadelphia on Friday. Then Anthony makes his return to Madison Square Garden on Saturday; he has a good idea of what it might be like, after watching George’s return to Indiana.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to go back and play in the Garden, play in front of those fans, play in front of my family, my friends. But at the end of the day, it’s business for me,” Anthony said. “But I’ll be lying if I say I’m not ecstatic to go back to be playing there. I got a different feeling with New York, different relationship, different bond with the city, with the fans, with the people. So it’ll be special for me.”