Miami’s Big Three on the Rise of Paul George

by Manny Randhawa

December 11, 2013 | 1:00 a.m.

At the end of the first half of the Pacers’ 90-84 win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, Paul George had two points, each on free throws. He had attempted only four shots and committed five turnovers as Indiana went into the locker room trailing by seven points.

“A lot of jitters,” George admitted of how he felt in the first two quarters as the Pacers and Heat met for the first time since an epic seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals. “I was looking to be aggressive at times when I should’ve been looking to be assertive as far as making plays for others.”

But then the Paul George we’ve come to know late in games appeared in the third quarter. George was 4-of-7 from the field in the second half, solving the smothering Miami defense that had focused like a laser on him all first-half long to keep him from getting any separation. In the second half, he deftly maneuvered on pick-and-roll plays to get himself open looks, and he connected on three of five 3-pointers he attempted to finish with 17 points.

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“Once the second half came around, things slowed down,” George said. “I was able to get into a comfort zone on the pick-and-roll.”

“Great players figure it out, eventually,” said Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra. “He got into a groove in the second half, broke free for two open three’s, and I think that got his confidence going.”

Being shut down by the defending champions in the first 24 minutes of play didn’t faze George; instead, he continued to show his mettle as a closer – a player that comes through when it counts and doesn’t shy away from the responsibility of being the go-to guy.

The man he went up against one-on-one – and the standard by which he has been measured over the first two months of the season in the early MVP debate – said the difference between Paul George Version 2012 and Paul George Version 2013 is a confidence proven by the role he has embraced for the Pacers.

“The biggest change is the confidence,” said LeBron James of George. “When your team looks at you as the go-to guy, it’s the confidence. [When] your confidence is raised, you go out there and you do it every night, and that’s what he’s been doing so far this season.”

Dwyane Wade recalled the point in his own career that he discovered just how good he was, and said Paul George is there now.

“Myself and LeBron, we’ve for sure been in Paul George’s shoes before, where you realize how good you are and your team gives you the keys to kind of run everything,” Wade said. “So it’s all confidence. When you have the talent and you have mental toughness, it takes you to another level.”

Now that George has gone to that other level, the defensive pressure that the Heat brought against him is just a sign of more to come from around the league, meaning George will have to adapt in order to continue to be the offensive force that he has become.

“We know what he can do and what he’s capable of individually,” Chris Bosh said. “We’re going to make it tough for him. Every team is going to make it tough for him, especially as it gets late. As those scouting reports get more refined, guys are going to make it very, very tough on him. And I think for him, he just has to continue to have faith in himself and keep playing basketball.”

Wade agreed that with George’s emergence as a top-echelon player, he will be the target of every team’s most stringent defensive efforts when they play the Pacers.

“He’s a focal point of every team,” Wade said. “So some nights he’s going to have big nights and some nights he won’t from that standpoint. But you’ve always got to be aware of him. He’s one of our young, good players in this league.”

George said he knew at halftime that he wasn't going to have the type of offensive game he's had in games past, but focused on creating for others. Even in so doing, he scored 15 second-half points after the slow start.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have a big game offensively, scoring wise,” George said. “But I knew I had to share the ball and get guys going.”

As George and the Pacers battled the Heat for the first time in the 2013-14 season, we didn’t just catch a glimpse of what could very well be a rematch in the conference finals come June. As we surveyed the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, our eyes also spotted the two best players in the Eastern Conference going head-to-head.

Each finished with 17 points on the night, and each had his ups and downs. But in the end, James summed up their first meeting this way:

“We’re just two guys, striving to be great, that’s all.”

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