A superstar’s return to their former city playing against their former city is always a game to circle on NBA season’s calendar. With intense emotions built up until tip-off and the media hyping everything up hoping to cause as much drama as possible, expectations are notably high for these types of games.
This time around, we’ll be tuning into forward Paul George playing in Indianapolis for the first time in a different jersey. George, now a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, was traded by the Indiana Pacers officially on July 6 for Domantas Sabonis and the surging Victor Oladipo. Prior to the trade, George spent his first seven seasons with the Pacers. The trade itself signified a new era in Indiana. Besides Lance Stephenson (who left after the ’13-14 season and came back at the end of last season after playing for five teams in less than three years), the Pacers have an entirely different roster than they did when they were competing with Lebron and the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals just three years ago. The Pacers went from being a legitimate title contender to struggling to get to the playoffs in just one season. In 2015, they failed to make playoffs and the next two seasons would result in first round exits including last season’s sweep versus the Cavs.
It was evident from that point that GM Kevin Pritchard either had to get George more help or trade the All-Star. Pritchard wisely chose option B after George notified the team that he intends to leave the Pacers in free agency reportedly to the Lakers once he became eligible in 2018, per sources. Pritchard reportedly offered George to the Golden State Warriors with hopes to receive one half in the splash brothers in Klay Thompson, although talks went nowhere. Soon, they would reportedly receive offers from teams such as the Boston Celtics as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers who actually had a deal set up until the Pacers backed out at the last minute in order to take OKC’s deal under the radar.
From the day of the trade until recent weeks, the Pacers were thought to have given George away for far less in return. That turned out to be false with Victor Oladipo having a career year with his third team in three years featuring career highs in points (24.5ppg), rebounds (5.3rpg), steals (1.8spg), blocks (1.1bpg), and field goal percentage from both inside (48.5%) and outside (44.4%) the perimeter. At this rate, you can book Oladipo a spot in the 2018 All-Star Game and potentially as the 2018 Most Improved Player. Oladipo has deemed himself as the new sheriff in town but with that, comes comparisons with the old sheriff, Paul George himself. Comparisons that Oladipo is tired of having to listen to as discussions about the topic grow as George’s return to Indy nears.
“I’m kind of getting sick and tired of the comparisons with Paul George and myself,” said Oladipo following Sunday’s game. “He’s moved on. I moved on from the situation that I was in. Life takes its course, things happen. I’m happy here, he’s happy there. I wish him all the best. I’m feathery, right here as a Pacer. I don’t have no disrespect towards him, or what happened. I’m just grateful, and honored, to put on this jersey every night.”
There are two things that can occur for NBA players when they return to the cities they used to play in. A standing ovation or a rupture of malicious booing. George knows what to expect when he returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” George said, when asked what to expect in his return. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
It wouldn’t be the first time George was booed. Last season he was booed as a member of the Pacers because the fans were unhappy with how the team was performing at the time but George’s reaction then is the same as now. It would only motivate and energize the All-Star forward to perform at the highest level.
“For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that. That’s gonna give me the energy to play better.”
Although, current Pacers guard and ex-teammate of George, Lance Stephenson thinks the crowd will display mixed feelings towards George’s return.
“He did so much for Indiana and how well he played and carried us when he was here,” Stephenson said. “I think he’ll get more cheers than boos.”
Envisioning George getting booed by the crowd that watched him grow to be the player he is today for seven years is difficult — or at least would be if this offseason didn’t play out the way it did. George has illustrated his gratitude and love for the people of Indiana but the news breaking out that he notified the Pacers’ front office of his intentions towards leaving the franchise is enough in itself to set off a mass amount of booing from those same people. It’s simple, you all know the saying, either you’re with them or you’re against them.
George’s teammate Carmelo Anthony chimed in on the topic as well. Anthony will have to revisit Madison Square Garden on Saturday for the first time since being traded himself during this offseason when the Thunder face off with the Knicks on Saturday.
“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said. “We’re in this together. We understand the situation. I’m pretty sure he’s going to embrace that situation, and we’re going to help him embrace that situation, and as a team, we’re going to help him embrace that situation.”
Anthony has been in this situation before as a member of the Knicks after he was traded there from the Denver Nuggets after the 2009-2010 season so he has experience in this type of event that he can relay off to George to maybe help him keep his emotions in check and focused with the goal at hand — winning the game.
A win against a strong Pacers team would be great for the Thunder to have in this state of the season given how the Thunder is currently doing. Sitting at a 12-14 record and almost two months into the season, the Thunder have to quickly figure things out if they expect to make playoffs and last longer than one series. Through 26 games, the Thunder have been all but consistent in each and every game. Through it all, the big three consisting of Westbrook, George, and Anthony have consistently preached patience but they understand they have to get things going in the right direction now or the season will be considered over before it even began.
“For the talent that we have, obviously this is not where we want to be,” George said. “But we’re going to remain optimistic, though, about the future and what we can do. Once we can find a way to really do it night in and night out, it’s no panic mode, but we have to start playing better. It’s getting to a point where we can’t allow ourselves to be at this point. We can say we’re going to figure it out, we can say all that. But at some point it’s gotta stop.”
The time is now for the Thunder to turn things around but getting through a Pacers team that is on pace to be a top five team in the eastern conference will be no facile task. Tip-off is at 4pm PT.