Indiana Pacers all-star swingman Paul George is starring in commercials that have peppered the airwaves this postseason. He soars and screams through a waterfall of purple Gatorade. He 360-degree-windmill-dunks for Papa John’s pizza.
But in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinal series vs. the Wizards, George has mostly been kept in check by Trevor Ariza, who has continued his habit of snuffing out the opposition’s best scorer. George is averaging 14.5 points but shooting just 30 percent (9 for 30) and has scored just three field goals while directly matched up against the long-armed Ariza.
When asked how he has been successful in slowing down George, Ariza took a deep breath and looked toward the ceiling while carefully choosing the right words. “You just take him off his sweet spots, try to deny him a little bit,” Ariza said. “Get him a little uncomfortable.”
Ariza has been able to force Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony into difficult shooting nights this season. But George wasn’t willing to give Ariza much credit for making him miserable so far.
“He’s just a deny guy,” George said. “He’s good at just playing that deny the ball to him, pressure on every catch. He’s a good defender, but he’s not someone that will take me out of my game.”
If this were a two-game fluke, George could be dismissive. His struggles against Ariza and Washington, however, have been the case for all but one of the five games the teams have played this season. George shot 36.4 percent against the Wizards in the regular season and averaged just 16.7 points – five below his season average.
After scoring 23 points in Indiana’s 93-73 win over Washington on Nov. 29, George missed 28 of 36 shots in the next two regular season games against the Wizards. George has scored 10 of his 29 points this series from the free throw line.
“He’s an elite defender,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said of Ariza. “Not just elite with his athleticism and size but his experience. He’s been through some of the biggest battles and been a champion as a wing stopper and certainly one of the best in the game.”
Ariza has forced George into four turnovers this series, stripping him of the ball twice in the first period of Game 2. In the fourth quarter, George finally got going against Ariza. He drove around a David West screen and powered through Ariza for a two-handed dunk, then put the Pacers ahead, 82-79, when he backed down Ariza and a made a quick spin move for a layup.
“I just caught the ball and attacked the basket. It was just being aggressive when I had the ball in my hands and able to make a play at the rim,” George said. “The whole start of the game, I was just going with the flow of the game, running the offense. I wasn’t really looking to attack off the ball, off the bounce to the basket, in the first couple of quarters. But when it came around to the fourth quarter, I knew I had to step up and make some plays and get myself going.”
Ariza had six three-pointers and scored 22 points as he won the one-on-one battle with George in Game 1. In Game 2, the Pacers were more focused on limiting Ariza’s looks from the three-point line and he finished with just six points. George got burned for much of the series opener, but in Game to he took turns with Lance Stephenson in defending Ariza and Bradley Beal.
“They made adjustments, they paid more attention to what I was doing, but I feel like I still got pretty good looks,” Ariza said. “The game was different. It was a different type of game. Even though we’re playing the same team, no two games are going to be the same. They’re all going to be different. I just have to find different ways to get looks and score.”
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