With the Golden State Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant and the Cleveland Cavaliers returning a majority of a title-winning core, most pundits have tabbed the two to square off once again for the trilogy in their Finals’ saga. While a Part 3 would be remarkable for both fans and ratings, a Finals appearance has become something of a formality for LeBron James the past six seasons.
The last team in the Eastern Conference who stood as a true hindrance to James advancing to compete for a title was the Indiana Pacers, who James helped eliminate in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals during the tail end of the Miami Heat’s four-year run to the Finals.
Now entering his seventh season, Paul George stands as the longest tenured and only remaining member from that smash-mouth Pacers’ squad. The seasons following his last playoff clash with James brought change and adjustment for both the All-Star forward and the franchise. Just two years removed from a devastating leg injury, George has not only reclaimed his place among the game’s best, but has placed himself in the MVP conversation as well.
While the Pacers offeason transactions didn’t garner many headlines, additions such as Al Jefferson, Thaddeus Young and Jeff Teague make for George’s deepest and most talented team. It’s the reason why his expectations are at their highest and why he feels that the Cavs ticket to the Finals shouldn’t be stamped so soon.
On a night where he sat out to rest, we caught up with George after the Pacers fell 121-105 to the Chicago Bulls.
SLAM: What were your thoughts when you learned of the moves the Pacers made this summer?
Paul George: I think with the moves made, the front office made it an emphasis on getting back to that caliber of talent that placed us in the [Eastern] Conference finals and bringing that level of play back to this organization that we’ve fell short of the last couple of seasons. We made the playoffs last year, but the year before that we fell short. Since I’ve been here, the one thing that we’ve lacked was bench play. With the depth that we have now; it’s one thing to have depth, but we have guys that can play multiple positions and can do multiple things. This team is pretty deep and can be very good.
SLAM: You’ve played against Jeff, Thaddeus and Al, so you’re aware of them as opponents and their strengths. Now being teammates, has any one of them surprised you?
PG: You know what makes them special from afar, but being their teammates gives you more insight. With Thad, he’s very underrated in just about everything he brings. Underrated ball handler, rebounder and I think one thing that makes him great here is his ability to rebound and push the ball. I think that’s a unique skill set for this team because we have a lot of shooters that can space the floor in transition that he’ll find. He’s wowed me in that aspect of his game so far.
SLAM: Do you take comfort in knowing that Larry Bird made moves to stay competitive rather than rebuild after missing the 2015 playoffs?
PG: It’s a luxury, really. The NBA season is very long. You don’t want to feel like you’re wasting years or you’re giving something that’s not going to go somewhere. I think that’s one of the worst things to go through in this league, so I’m thankful that they’re trying to keep this team and the organization competitive, in putting pieces around me to try and get us back in the playoffs and to try and take out LeBron and the Cavaliers.
SLAM: LeBron has been a personal hurdle for you, as well as a lot of teams in the East. How confident are you that you can get past that hurdle?
PG: I’m real confident. The only thing is that with any new talent on any team, it takes time. I think that’s really the only thing that’s an issue at this point right now. Who’s to say that this team can’t turn into something special right away this season? When they started the Big Three with LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh; they didn’t win the first year. So hopefully, with what we got here, this will be the group that can put us over the top.
SLAM: You were part of Team USA this summer and there’s a trend of guys who participate there following that up with strong seasons. In your opinion, what is it about going through that experience that’s beneficial for you going into the next season?
PG: You get to compete against the best of the best when you would just usually be doing individual workouts. I think it simply comes down to that. When you’re competitive and you’re competing against the best players, it elevates you and makes you play at another level. With the Team USA practices, those practices are going to be better than your team practices simply because the players are better as a whole. You have to play with your A-game at all times.
There’s this level that you’ve discovered that you can get to, and you bring it to your team. It forces their play to elevate because those guys are competitive as well. I think that’s what the experience does. It raises the level you may already be at because you’re forced to play at a high level on a daily basis.
SLAM: What are some of the areas you set out to improve upon this summer?
PG: Just more midrange things. I think as I continue to develop and progress throughout my career, the midrange game is that area [of focus] for me. I worked a lot on footwork, mid-post and elbow action. This was a different summer for me, in terms of training because I was training to play with Team USA during the summer and not training to prepare for this season. But I’m excited about getting started.
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