One night after pulling even with the Chicago Bulls for first place in the NBA’s Central Division, the Indiana Pacers at least maintained that advantage thanks to another big game from Paul George.
George posted 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists for the Pacers, now 10-9 overall and winners of six of their past eight games after the 99-92 victory over Portland, which includes former Illinois and Robinson, Ill., 7-footer Meyers Leonard.
George, who had 34 points Tuesday at Chicago, keyed a 10-0 Indiana run in which the Pacers stretched a two-point advantage up to 72-60 with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Nicolas Batum, who came in averaging 17 points a game and was held to five by George and the Pacers, got a steal but then his turnover led to a George 3-pointer that ignited Indiana’s decisive spurt.
On Indiana’s next possession, George sliced through the lane off a Roy Hibbert ball screen to earn a trip to the free-throw line for two points.
“Tonight was as big a win as last night,” George said. “They are all big. We all have to continue to play together, help each other at both ends of the court and see what happens. I’m going to continue to let the game come to me and hopefully be productive. … I just hope I can continue this.”
Indiana continued to attack.
Leonard got beat by Pacers’ backup center Ian Mahinmi on a backcut for a layup to aid the Pacers’ lead up to its largest point of the game at 69-60.
Leonard, who was averaging 19 minutes a game coming into his first game at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, played just 12 minutes in front of a large contingent of Blazers fans from Robinson, Ill.
Leonard finished an alley-oop dunk seven minutes before halftime to give him four points and a blocked shot in the first half. Leonard, who is second among NBA rookies shooting 53 percent from the field, put down a powerful dunk earlier in the second quarter as well.
“It was pretty neat to come out and see everyone here supporting me,” Leonard said. “I’ve always had a close following, especially since I committed to Illinois in high school. A few people from town got some people together and got some tickets. I had close family and best friends here and people that have been following me since high school.”
With a deep group of big men to contend for minutes, Leonard went scoreless with one rebound in 1:47 of action in the second half. The Trail Blazers (8-11) rallied to within four after trailing by 15 early in the fourth quarter behind the backcourt duo of Lillard and Wesley Matthews.
Portland coach Terry Stotts said Leonard simply had trouble against some rugged Pacers post players. Tyler Hansbrough beat Leonard on the offensive glass and seemed to stun Leonard with his physical play once or twice.
“Probably the physical nature of the game. He was battling Hibbert, West and Hansbrough,” Stotts said. “Those guys are solid, solid pros. He was kind of on his heels a couple times with that. It was a physical game.”
Leonard did not have one of his better games of the season — he’s been in double figures three times — with the loss coming at the end of a seven-game road trip for the Blazers.
“I thought I played decent in the first half. The second half I really just couldn’t catch a second wind,” Leonard said. “With matchups and everything, the momentum of the game, coach just had certain guys in. I’m going to do whatever it takes for the team. It was a rough second half for me. We almost made a comeback, but we’ve just got to move on. Have to play harder.”