INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George fueled high expectations by becoming an All-Star at just 22 years of age and leading the Indiana Pacers to a Central Division title.
The 6-foot-9 forward just raised the bar again.
He had a triple-double and led the Pacers to a 107-90 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoff series. He had 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds for just the second triple-double in Pacers playoff history. Mark Jackson had the first in 1998.
“I know what the team will expect from me now,” George said, laughing. “I like the pressure. My teammates know I’ll do whatever it takes to advance.”
George would have broken Reggie Miller’s team playoff record of 17 consecutive made free throws in a game, but he missed his 18th and final try. He planned to get to the free-throw line often.
“It really was just a whole mindset,” he said. “I didn’t do anything different. I just told myself, really try to get to the free-throw line, really try and get in that attack mode. When it comes to now, jump shots come and go.”
George said he doesn’t like labels and wants to be viewed simply as a ballplayer.
He’s already convinced Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel that he can’t be put in a category.
“That’s who Paul George is,” Vogel said. “He doesn’t make an All-Star team because he’s averaging 28 points a game, but because he’s one of the most complete players in the game.
“He impacts the game in so many different ways — defense, rebounding, steals, blocks, offensive rebounding, 3-point shooting, getting to the free throw line, the extra pass. He’s just one of the most complete players in the game.”
George Hill scored 18 points, Roy Hibbert had 16 points and eight rebounds and Lance Stephenson and David West each added 13 points for Indiana.
Jeff Teague led Atlanta with 21 points. Josh Smith had 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists, and Al Horford added 14 points for the Hawks.
Atlanta shot 50 percent from the field, but the Pacers outrebounded the Hawks 48-32.
“I thought they clearly played with more of a blue collar style than we did,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “They came up with a lot of big plays on loose balls and offensive rebounds. It seemed right when we were ready to get into a groove or rhythm, they struck back against us. They came up with big plays.”
Indiana led by eight at halftime and continued to play well early in the third quarter. Hibbert’s running hook shot gave the Pacers a 66-53 lead.
A 3-pointer by Stephenson gave Indiana an 81-67 edge late in the third quarter, and the Pacers led 84-69 at the end of the quarter.
Atlanta closed to single digits, but Hill’s 3-pointer bumped Indiana’s lead back to 93-81. A reverse layup by Tyler Hansbrough made it 95-81.
Teague’s 3-pointer with less than five minutes remaining trimmed Indiana’s edge to 95-86.
Indiana regained control on a spectacular effort by George. He dived on the floor and tipped the ball to Stephenson to claim his 10th rebound and the triple-double. Then Stephenson found West on the baseline. West scored, was fouled and made the free throw for a 98-86 lead.
“That was real important because it was an opportunity for a second shot,” George said. “That crushes momentum. That crushes a team when there’s a loose ball and we come up with that loose ball. That breaks teams up. That just kills momentum.”
Stephenson followed with a 3-pointer, and some of the fans headed for the exits.
Atlanta opened the game on a 6-0 run, but the Pacers quickly answered with a bucket by Hibbert and a 3-pointer by Hill.
Another 3-pointer by Hill gave Indiana a 15-13 lead, and the Pacers extended the lead to six shortly thereafter. A one-handed throw-down by Stephenson got the once-dead crowd back into the game.
A power dunk and a putback by Hansbrough gave the Pacers a 31-21 lead.
The Pacers led 34-26 at the end of the first quarter. Hill scored 11 points and George had seven points, seven rebounds and three assists at that point.
The Hawks closed to four in the final minutes of the second quarter, but a breakaway two-handed dunk by Stephenson in the last minute of the first half pushed Indiana’s lead to eight.
Teague responded with a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the first half, but George came right back with a 3-point play with 2.7 seconds left in the second quarter to bump Indiana’s advantage to 58-50 at the break.
It was an important win for the Pacers, who had lost five of their final six regular-season games, including four by double digits.
“It was huge for our confidence,” George said. “We get back to playing our style of basketball. That’s a tough team. They came out and hit shots. We know what they’re capable of.”
NOTES: Indiana won the Central Division for the first time in nine years. … Indiana was second in the league in fewest points allowed per game at 90.7. … George scored in single figures in two of his final four regular-season games. … Gerald Green scored a career-high 34 points in Indiana’s final regular-season game. … Atlanta’s Shelvin Mack played college ball at Butler University in Indianapolis. Teague is an Indianapolis native. … The two teams split in the regular season, with Atlanta winning the first two games and Indiana taking the last two. … West left the game in the third quarter with a mild left-ankle sprain but returned.