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Playoff Assist: Paul George's 3-point shooting is the tipping point

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

George's 3-point shooting has lifted the Pacers this round. (USATSI)
Paul George's 3-point shooting has lifted the Pacers this round. (USATSI)

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When the Indiana Pacers nearly lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, they were bombarded with outside shooting from a brilliant attack by Mike Budenholzer's team. They needed defense and outside shooting of their own just to keep up because trading two points for three most possessions was a losing equation. Once they survived the first round and matched up with the Washington Wizards in the second round, the importance of outside shooting heightened because instead of being a way to keep pace with their opponent, it actually became the way to gain a big advantage and topple those in front of them.

Riding Roy Hibbert to victory in Game 2 was a fantastic reset for the big man and this team, but they needed to make sure competency from all key players on the roster were led by the overwhelming scoring ability of Paul George. The defense in the Game 3 victory was the Pacers getting back to the date that brought them to the dance in the first place, but they didn't become true titans of the East (well, they were for a little while and now have to get back there) until George became a star talent. The crux of his star talent has always been his ability to shoot from outside, with his length and athleticism making running him off that 3-point shot a difficult counter to adjust to.

In the first two games of the series, George struggled with his outside shot, making just one of his eight attempts. In Game 3 during the Pacers' defensive reset, George knocked down two of his four attempts from 3-point range. Then in Game 4, he broke loose with a 7-of-10 performance from downtown and made 6-of-8 in the second half when the Pacers took control of the game.

George isn't the type of outside shooter to just dribble up the court and fire away in isolation sets. Only 9.4 percent of his 3-point attempts (including attempts in the postseason) have come in isolation plays, which is good because he makes them at a 34.5 percent clip. George knows where his strengths are as a shooter, and he adheres to these strengths most of the time. His three best ways of taking 3-point shots are coming off screens, spotting up, and in transition. These are the ways in which George was able to hit 9-of-14 from downtown in the last two games, which happened to be victories for the Pacers to take a 3-1 series lead.

Paul George deadly from the outside in transition

In the chaos of attempting to play transition defense, the first thing defenders want to do is make sure there aren't easy attempts given up at the rim. If everybody is getting back on defense properly, you can typically have a couple of guys grab the paint while the rest of the defenders find the shooters looking to be opportunistic scorers. It's not always that easy though and certain players are great at capitalizing on scrambling defensive mistakes in transition.

George is great at taking advantage of this on the break by hanging around the 3-point line and setting his feet as the defense collapses inside. Including the playoffs, the Pacers' star has hit on 43.7 percent of his transition 3-point attempts, which account for 12.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Two of his nine 3-pointers over the last two games came on situations like this in which the confusion of the defense put them at a huge disadvantage. Let's take a look at how he got these two looks to go in and how the Pacers reaped the benefits of the Wizards panicking a bit in transition:

The first three was a great example of George pushing the pace, kicking the ball out, and then flashing to the corner as the Wizards were still trying to figure out where the match-ups were. Hibbert hustling down the floor and filling the lane helps create the confusion as big men Al Harrington and Drew Gooden both collapse in the paint. Martell Webster initially bodies up George before sticking with Lance Stephenson inside. This leaves Al Harrington trying to cover roughly 20 feet as George puts up the corner three and knocks it down.

The second 3-point make in this clip comes from David West, yes that David West, being a point guard and leading the break. Essentially, you have three players collapsing on West in the paint with Webster staying close between West and Stephenson on the wing. But George, the deadliest shooting option on the floor for the Pacers, is just hanging out on the left wing. It's an easy bucket from downtown that helps the Pacers stay within striking distance and eventually pull out this game.

Paul George coming off screens

The second most 3-point attempts for George this season (including playoffs) happened when he worked off of screens to get the shot. Of his 570 3-point attempts, 152 of them (26.6 percent) have been when coming off screens. It's a good thing he uses this option so often to get his outside looks too because he knocks down 39.5 percent of those attempts.

Two of his made 3-pointers in the past two wins happened when he came off screens beautifully. One of them happened on a basic pindown the Pacers like to run that get George popping to the top of the key with Hibbert or West setting the screen around the free throw line. With the defender trying to fight through such a big body and George having the height and length to have a nearly impossible shot to block, it's a great combination for getting a good look. Let's take a look at those two makes:

The key action to this play is setting a soft, fly-by screen on Stephenson's made, who is worried about the pass under the rim. Once that defender gets in the way of George's defender, it creates a traffic jam inside and allows George to circle up to the top while using Hibbert as the real picker on the play. All George has to do is make sure to square up to the basket and set his feet before letting it fly.

The second 3-pointer in this clip is the ever-popular "Elevator screen" that the Warriors made such a fad during last season. George dips into the paint and has Hibbert and West standing side-by-side on the low right block. They're going to separate enough for George to get through, then close up that space to keep the defender from getting right to the shooter. You have Trevor Ariza trying to go around Hibbert on the play, but it leaves him off-balance and he ends up hitting George on the follow-through for the 4-point play.

Paul George spotting up to stretch the floor

The most accurate 3-point situation for George also happens to be the way the Pacers use his outside shooting the most. Going through Hibbert or West on the block or using a pick-and-roll with George stretching the floor has been a great way to add outside shooting to an offense that desperately needs it. Of George's 3-point attempts, 28.5 percent of them come when he's spotting up on the perimeter.

He knocks down an impressive 44.8 percent of them. Whether he's coming off screens or spotting up, George has been one of the best catch-and-shoot guys in the league this year. He has an effective field goal percentage of 60.8 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers and that goes up to 72.3 percent when he's unguarded on the shot. Four of his eight made 3-pointers in the last two games have come on spot-ups. Let's take a look at how he utilizes space and how the Wizards have just been unaware that he's going to let it fly:

Too often in the past two games, Ariza gave George all kinds of space outside and had his hands down. Sure, George is a couple feet behind the 3-point line but for him that's an effortless flick of the wrist on his follow-through and you can't just let him have that shot uncontested, even if you're going to play off of it. A lot of dribble penetration has led to the Wizards collapsing to the paint and then scrambling to the shooters as the Pacers make the extra pass, which is very similar to how the transition game has gone at times.

The Pacers need Paul George's outside shooting, especially when you consider they were just 17th in the NBA in 3-point accuracy this season. Their All-Star forward took (500 out of 1542) and made (182 out of 550) nearly one-third of their 3-point attempts. He's the biggest part of their outside attack and when they can get him going with the situations that make him successful, they're really hard to beat. If the Pacers can get George great looks once again in Game 5, the Pacers will move on to their season-long goal of facing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year.

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