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Lakers get an up-close look at a Pacers team playing better without Paul George

When the Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer, a common opinion about what they got in return was: “That’s it?”

After months of speculation about what it would take for a team to land George, and the Lakers’ attempt to offer some of their young players for him , all the Thunder had to part with was Victor Oladipo, now on his third team in five years, and Domantas Sabonis?

Luke Walton was just like the rest of us. And, like anyone who’s paid attention to the Pacers since, his opinion has evolved.

“Originally I thought it was kind of a lopsided trade, but I’m man enough to admit that I was wrong,” Walton said. “Indiana has, I think they’re probably the surprise team of the season so far. They’re playing unbelievable. … Both of those players they got in the trade, they’re playing some really, really good basketball, so obviously a good trade for both teams.”

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George was linked to the Lakers since he told the Pacers last June that he planned to become a free agent in the summer of 2018 and sign with his hometown team. Larry Bird had been the Pacers’ longtime chief executive and had no intention of trading George, certainly not to the Lakers. He and his longtime rival Magic Johnson chatted over the phone before last year’s trade deadline, but Bird insisted to The Times that the conversation was not about trading George.

However, Bird stepped away from that role in May, leaving Kevin Pritchard as the president of basketball operations. Pritchard began exploring options to trade George, even as George continued to insist to friends that he planned to wind up with the Lakers. And while Pritchard was more amenable to trading George than Bird had been, he was not interested in sending him to the Lakers.

George recognized that hurt feelings might have factored into that.

“Both sides could’ve done a better job of communication and going forward and taking steps to where we were both comfortable getting what we wanted to get out of it,” George said. “But it was definitely feelings involved with that whole [thing], how it went down.”

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Indiana found its quest to trade George hampered by the fact that many teams figured he would be only a one-year rental. So Oklahoma City got another All-Star with whom it could try to chase a championship, in the hope that would be enough to keep him long term. And Indiana got something back for George, whom it seemingly was going to lose anyway.

But then the narrative changed, because Oladipo changed it.

The Pacers have the fourth-best record in the East, tied with the Washington Wizards and only half a game back from the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re on pace for their most wins since 2013-14 and to surpass their No. 7 playoff seed of George’s last two seasons. That is largely due to Oladipo’s play. A player who didn’t quite fit with Oklahoma City is thriving back in Indiana, where he starred as a Hoosier. He is averaging 23.4 points, which is the first season in his career he has averaged more than 20. He’s scored more than 30 points in 11 games and had a 47-point game in December.

“I always knew that he had that ability to have games like that, but the thing that separates normal players from All-Stars and All-Stars from superstars is the ability to do it every single night,” Walton said. “So far this season he’s really taken a big step as far as the consistency of playing at that elite level. That is not easy. Play big minutes, defenses are focused on you. He’s getting it done pretty much every night.”

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UP NEXT

AT INDIANA

When: 4 p.m. PDT, Monday

On Air: TV — Spectrum SportsNet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio — 710, 1330

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Update: The Pacers won at Boston and Philadelphia last week before losing to the East-leading Raptors and at Washington, which holds the fourth seed despite sharing a 40-30 record with Indiana.

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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