By Karan Madhok / @hoopistani
Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2: With less than 16 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, the Indiana Pacers, who were down 1-0 to the Heat, held on to a two-point lead in Game 2. Indiana swingman Paul had the ball in his hand just a step inside Miami’s half. Ahead of him stood four-time MVP and the man who had beaten him to the game-winner in Game 1, LeBron James. George waited. It had been a good game for him so far, but he had his eyes on the prize.
With the 10th pick of the 2010 NBA Draft, the Indiana Pacers picked guard/forward Paul George of Fresno State University. Few knew about him before 2010. George had only played 20 minutes a game and averaged solid-yet-unspectacular rookie season, averaging 7.8 points per game. He was named to the All Rookie Second Team. He was one of only two rookies to be a starter by the time the 2011 Playoffs rolled around. But his team lost in the First Round in five games.
Meanwhile, that same year began with LeBron James announcing his decision to join the Miami Heat. At the end of that season, LeBron was in the NBA Finals in a loss to Dallas.
George must have seen LeBron do his thing. He saw Derrick Rose win an MVP award and beat him in the playoffs. He must have seen other All Star swingman like Durant, Anthony, Wade, Kobe, and more get big numbers and post big wins. He waited. He had his eyes on the prize, too.
Over the next few seconds, George moves forward, dribbling the ball between his legs, until he is face to face with LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world.
By his sophomore season, George’s role for the Pacers evolved into something deeper. He was now a regular starter, but with Danny Granger and David West carrying most of the offensive load, his role was of an athletic defensive stopper. He excelled. With increased minutes came increased production. He was now getting 12 points a game to go with nearly six rebounds. His hops had him participating in the Slam Dunk contest. The improved Pacers, with Roy Hibbert as an All Star, now found themselves a step ahead – the Second Round – in the playoffs. This time, George came face to face with the Heat and with LeBron and Wade. While he struggled mightily on the offensive end, he did an admirable job on the defensive end. Still, inexperience caught up with him and his team, who were defeated 4-2 after leading 2-1.
The Heat went on to the Finals again. And this time, they won it. LeBron had his first ring. Wade had his second. Durant and Westbrook were in the Finals too. George had taken a step ahead this season, come face to face with the best player in the world. And now, he was looking ahead, too.
Suddenly, he accelerates. He gets a step ahead of LeBron and – wooosh! – in a couple of lighting quick steps, he’s beaten him. The path to his goal – the basket – is now clearer…
With Danny Granger injured, the Pacers desperately needed offense from the perimeter. The onus fell on George, and the young man delivered. Playing a career-high 37.6 minutes per game, he improved his production to 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. He was suddenly the team’s best player and quickly accelerated to becoming one of the finest perimeter threats in the entire league. He became an All Star. By the time the season ended, he was in the All NBA Third Team. He was in the All Defensive Second Team. He was the 2013 NBA Most Improved Player. His rise was phenomenally quick. Blink – and wooosh! – you would have missed it!
The Pacers – even without Granger – improved rapidly too. They beat Hawks in the First Round. Then the Knicks in the Second. It was a total team effort, with a different hero – from Hibbert to West to Hill to Stephenson – every day. But George was the constant.
In the Conference Finals now, and they faced the Heat again. With LeBron now defending his first championship and riding on his fourth MVP award. In Game 1, George scored 27 points, including the clutch three to send the game into overtime, and three free-throws to give Indiana the lead in OT. But LeBron – the best player in the planet that he is – was brilliant and stole game. Indiana were beaten but not dejected. They vowed to bounce back. George’s goal would be not just to be on the same stage as LeBron, but to beat him.
George was airborne when Chris Anderson decided to contest his dunk. Too little, too late. He had already risen too high.
22 points, 6 assists, and a win later, George would return to Indiana for Game 3 with the series tied at 1-1. And perhaps, equally as importantly, he would return with the respect of his competitor and his idol
. “I got you back, young fella,” LeBron said to him during his Game 2 performance. And it wasn’t just for that dunk. It was for all the shots and drives to the basket and opportunities he created for his teammates. It was for his elite perimeter defense on LeBron. It was for his clutch scoring in Game 1 and for all his big performances all year.
The Heat won Game 3 behing a display of their full arsenal of offensive weapons, playing their best game of the post-season to blow out the Pacers. LeBron leads them with 22 points, but most importantly, plays strong defense to limit George to just 13. They have the 2-1 lead and the advantage now. They are closer to making the Finals for the third straight year.
Being an elite player means being elite game after game, night in and night out. George will get there. His improvement has mirrored the Pacers. Both have taken a step ahead every year, a step closer to their dreams. George is now closer to the stars. Closer to the LeBrons, Durants, and Carmelos of the league. Not just a solid starter or an All Star. He is now only a step away from superstardom. A step away from the Finals himself. A few steps away from being a champion.
Brimming with confidence, expect George to bounce back and give it his all against LeBron and co for the rest of the series.
With explosive power, he slammed it down for a beautiful finish. And one. Anderson was on the floor. LeBron a step behind. And his teammates celebrating around him
The rise has been good. But it's only just begun. Expect this 23-year-old to keep rising over the next few years. The same stars that he used to look up to, he can now look them straight in the eye, match them face-to-face, shot-to-shot. He can look ahead to the future for that beautiful finish, with his opponents behind him and his teammates celebrating the ultimate prize - an NBA Championship - around him.