Remember when the Hickory Huskers finally put it together in the movie “Hoosiers”? It’s when Jimmy Chitwood decided to join his buds instead of swishing baskets alone on the farm in the dirt.
When the Indiana Pacers broke out their Hickory uniforms for Friday night’s visit from the Miami Heat, it was most apropos that Paul George took over in scoring a season-high 36 points. He was, much like Chitwood in that famous Indiana high school basketball movie, unstoppable.
We were reminded, as George drove the Pacers to a 90-87 win that pulled Indiana’s record to an even 3-3, of what this team did not have last season for all but six games. No George meant no playoffs and a team prone to extended losing streaks. It was so frustrating, watching the guys fight, yet too many nights, no Superman.
Some time, you need that guy who will look actor Gene Hackman (coach Norman Dale) in the eye and assure before the all-important shot, “I’ll make it.”
And at that moment, you just know, everything is going to be alright.
The Pacers were bricking enough free throws to give the Heat a chance. But Miami star Dwyane Wade couldn’t hit the broad side of Chitwood’s barn, either. So a winnable game came down to an intense half-court, in-your-face showdown.
George took a few dribbles, regardless of who was on him, then let fly and … swish.
The Pacers’ two-time NBA All-Star didn’t even care about wearing those maroon and gold movie uniforms. After hitting 14-of-27 shots including two 3-pointers and grabbing 12 rebounds, then adding three steals, three assists and a blocked shot, George shrugged and said those unusual looking “unis” were “cool.”
What’s better than cool is seeing George give the Pacers back their mojo. A roster was overhauled with eight new faces in the offseason. But he’s still the guy to make it work, regardless of where he plays, shooting guard, small forward, power forward. Whatever.
George hasn’t been shooting the ball like expected, so of course, he did something about it. Before these last two wins on back-to-back nights, Chitwood showed up early at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and took “200 to 300” extra shots.
When the deviation from his game-day routine resulted in 26 points and five 3-pointers in a Wednesday win over the Boston Celtics, a 100-97 victory which like against the Heat also came down to the opponents missing a 3-pointer at the end, George showed up early again on Friday.
Head coach Frank Vogel was unsure why George would need to do this, since there’s extra shooting before and after every practice. But if it helps George shoot better in games, so be it. The only concern is the star player has jump in his legs when it’s time to play.
George insists he’s not yet back 100 percent from breaking his right leg last year, but he’s close. And regardless of how the new pieces fit together as this long grind of a season plods along, having George almost healthy is enough.
We’re not worried about enduring six- and seven- and eight-game losing streaks, as was the case a year ago, when point guard George Hill and the now-departed David West were hurt. We’re not asking if center Roy Hibbert can be more of a scorer in George’s absence because president Larry Bird shipped the moody one to NBA Siberia, the Los Angeles Lakers.
What we wonder now is how well these Pacers can come together around George, who is still just 25 but entering his sixth NBA season with more purpose than ever before. He aspires to be an NBA MVP, which is to say he sets the bar high for himself. But more than that, he wants to be part of a winner and understands how important he is to making that happen.
If George can bark less at officials who are slow to give him the Kobe Bryant “star treatment,” and focus more on just shooting however many times it takes in a day to bring out his best, the Pacers are going to be OK.
This team won’t win the NBA title and enjoy the ultimate cinematic happy ending like in the movie, but with George leading the way, they can be fun to watch. They will win their share of games, when they’re wearing Hickory colors and not.
That’s what was obvious from Friday night. That’s what was so reassuring, after a lost season with George on the mend.
He’s back, and so are the Pacers. And when you’ve got Chitwood on the floor, you always have a chance.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.