Indianapolis • Indiana forward Paul George was honored Tuesday as the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
The announcement came less than a week after the 6-foot-9 forward finished his breakthrough regular season and less than 48 hours after he became only the second player in franchise history to record a triple double in the NBA playoffs. He had 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in the Pacers’ 107-90 Game 1 win over Atlanta — giving the Pacers their first 1-0 series lead since 2006.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Indy.
George averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds this season, both career highs. He averaged 12.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in 2011-12. He’s the fourth player in franchise history to win the award, joining Jalen Rose, Jermaine O’Neal and Danny Granger.
It was no fluke.
George has shown steady improvement over each of his first three seasons in the league, going from a part-time starter in 2010-11 to a full-time starter and secondary scoring option in 2011-12. He emerged as the Pacers’ top scoring threat and team leader this season after Granger went down with a left knee injury. And he became the Pacers’ top defender, too.
Granger missed all but five games. So with the Pacers in desperate need of a replacement, George proved a more than capable fill-in for his friend after spending last summer working out with reigning MVP LeBron James as the U.S. team prepared for the Olympics.
George, who made only 19 of 52 shots in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal loss to James and eventual champion Miami, promised to return a different player. He used his performance in that 4-2 series loss to commit himself to being more aggressive and more reliable, particularly in the playoffs.
Indiana couldn’t quibble with the results.
George was selected to his first All-Star game in February, and never let down. He helped Indiana clinch its first Central Division title in nine years and played only 250 fewer minutes during the 2012-13 regular season than he did in the previous two seasons combined.
The only blip came late when George acknowledged he was tired and trying to recover from an abdominal strain.
But after taking three full days off and going a full week between games, the forward returned to form against the Hawks. Despite shooting just 3 of 13 from the field Sunday, he made his first 17 free throws to tie Reggie Miller’s postseason mark for best free-throw percentage in a single game, then missed his 18th and final attempt.
George and Mark Jackson are the only Pacers to post triple doubles in an NBA playoff game.