INDIANAPOLIS — Of course it came down to Paul George. Isn’t that the way this always works?
George didn’t shoot well during a return game against the Indiana Pacers, for whom he played his first seven NBA seasons. He was sloppy early with turnovers. Yet, he found himself at the foul line with an opportunity to close the game.
Thunder up three, 11 seconds to go.
He finished both shots.
George had just recovered a steal off a botched pass to Pacers shooting guard Victor Oladipo. In that sense, the ending was symbolic of his evening. George pestered the Pacers all night, though he made just 3 of 14 shots and finished with a mere 10 points.
“Vic is their guy here. Right? Right?” George said of the steal. “Simple. Don't let him get the ball. Ballgame.”
The Thunder had their lapses, but they stifled one of the NBA’s most efficient offenses for most of the game.
George helped limit Oladipo to 9 of 26 shooting. Steven Adams got in the way of pick-and-rolls and swatted away anything near the paint. Jerami Grant defended the rim, as well. Even Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony showed up guarding one of the league’s most successful offenses.
It came through in the final defensive play, when George recovered a poor pass and eventually put the game out of reach, giving the Thunder a 100-95 victory and bringing their season’s record to 13-14.
“He did a good job on me defensively,” Oladipo said of George. “It was the first time I've had a defender like that guard me since I've been on this team.”
The free throws were the only way George weaved himself into Wednesday’s offensive consequences, though.
He got jeered in lineup intros. The boos continued into the game whenever he touched the ball, though they faded once the score stayed close into the later minutes. All three of the Thunder’s conventional big three shot poorly.
Westbrook made only 3 of 17 shots. Anthony sank 4 of 14.
Instead, the role players — at least, the guys usually thought of as role players — won it. Specifically, it was Adams’ night.
“He was great tonight. He kept fighting for offensive rebounds and kept so many plays alive,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He rim protected, rolled to the basket. He was phenomenal tonight.”
He finished the evening with 23 points on 11 of 16 shooting. Nine of his 13 rebounds came on the offensive end. Adams called the boards lucky.
They weren’t. He physically dominated the paint from the start.
“He’s not strong,” Anthony joked. “Don’t hype his head up.”
Yet, he’s proven to be more than just an off-to-the-side threat this season. He’s now averaging 19.0 points and 10.1 rebounds over the Thunder’s previous seven games.
He was a leader of the inverse formula Wednesday.
On a night when Westbrook, Anthony and George combined for 34 points on 10 of 45 shooting, the rest of the group went for 66 on 26 of 43.
The Thunder outscored the Pacers while each member of the bench was on the floor. Every player outside of Westbrook, Anthony and George made at least half of his shots.
Patrick Patterson sank a couple of corner 3s. Grant was effective around the rim. Raymond Felton moved the ball. Josh Huestis nailed a 3 and defended multiple positions for Donovan, who opted for offensive-defensive subs with Huestis and Alex Abrines at the end of the game.
Huestis initially took a charge with the Thunder leading by two and under a minute to go. Referee Mike Callahan controversially reversed the call after replay review, because Huestis had not established defensive positioning. It could have remained an offensive foul. But Pacers forward Thad Young sank one of two free throws to shorten the deficit to one.
Abrines, who makes his living from beyond the arc and had sank four shots, all of them 3s, during the first 47-plus minutes, entered the game and saved the Thunder on the very next possession, tipping in a Westbrook miss to extend the advantage to three.
“I was impressed,” Huestis said of the slender Abrines before smirking. “He’s not a very strong guy.”
George stole the ball to put the game away on the next play.
It mirrored the rest of the evening. It worked out for the Thunder — just not in the way anyone would expect.
“It showed what the guys off the bench can do,” Huestis said. “We are talented, high energy guys, and we know our role. It felt great.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.