“It’s just constantly trying to push one another, constantly trying to push these guys,” said George. “I’ve been No. 1 in the East. I’ve been in the conference finals (twice) and I’ve been deep in the playoffs. I know how to close the season out and how to go into the playoffs.”
The teammates who were helping him as recently as three seasons ago are all gone now. George is the last of those contending Pacers. His only teammate with similar experience is point guard Jeff Teague, who reached the 2015 conference finals with the 60-win Hawks.
“Jeff has been in playoff battles recently,” said George. “Me and him, we have to kind of shoulder that down the stretch.”
On Wednesday night here, George and Teague endured a 109-100 loss to the No. 2 Celtics that fulfilled the themes of this season. It felt to George very much like a playoff game – in part because these two teams may very well meet in the first round. But it was a familiar story. George scored 37 points in 42 minutes, Teague added 25, and no other Pacer contributed more than 8. The Celtics, who swept their three-game season series with Indiana, played to a constructive flow that reminded George of better days.
“You look at their roster – everybody knows what to expect out of one another,” George said of the Celtics. “There’s never a moment where a guy is like, `What kind of shot are you taking?’ or ‘What are you doing?’ They’re past that, they’re beyond that. That’s the chemistry we’re trying to make, to where guys are comfortable with their style, we know what they’re going to do, and they’re doing everything within the offense.
“But I thought tonight – granted a couple plays, and maybe a good 10 minutes we could have swung a little bit more effort – it was a very winnable game. I saw fight in us tonight that we haven’t seen on the road in awhile.”
Of course, the Boston fans had seized on Indiana’s vulnerability by greeting George with applause, which made him laugh afterward.
“I guess they were in on the rumors,” he said.
They knew that their Celtics had spent the days leading up to the trade deadline in February trying to convince Pacers president Larry Bird to send George to Boston. George will be a free agent in 2018, amid abundant speculation that he has interest in returning home to Los Angeles as a Laker. But he has continued to insist that he may yet re-sign with Indiana.
“If we have a great team here, why not?” George said after he had played the entire second half of the loss to the Celtics.
And if the Pacers haven’t assembled a great team around him?
“Then we’ll talk,” said George, as he sat with his feet in a bucket of ice water. “Me and the front office, we’ll talk.”
For the Pacers to be great, said one of the reporters surrounding his locker, George will have to remain with the team.
“True,” George said, after he had thought it through.
In the meantime there is this imminent opportunity before him. He can feel the pressure of the playoffs building in his stomach already. “I don’t care if we play Cleveland, Toronto, Boston,” George said. “I just love playoff basketball.”
He will be the underdog. He will be expected to play his level best and to bring out the unfulfilled potential in his teammates. He is going to be up against it and yet George was looking forward to his anxiety. He wants to feel the discomfort and nervousness of the playoffs, which, as he understands it, is not the goal for most people in the everyday working world.
“At the end of the day, people enjoy being comfortable,” George said. “But that’s not what life is about.”
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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