You could see him growing before your very eyes. Not just the play on the court, but the conversations in the locker room or after practice. Not just the obligatory season-ending comments, but the serious demeanor in more private moments.
Paul George matured during the Pacers' first-round playoff loss to Toronto, providing the franchise's best hope for improvement. Well, that and Myles Turner's promising rookie season. But teams need multiple All-Stars, if not superstars, to win championships, and they need those stars to inject life into their teams rather than drain them. The Pacers appear to have such a player in George, who turned 26 on Monday and is under contract for two more seasons – three if he picks up the player option on the final year of the deal.
Throughout most of his regular season, George seemed more focused on his comeback from the broken leg suffered on Aug. 1, 2014, which kept him out of all but six games last season. He started out sensationally, earning Player of the Month honors in November, then drifted in and out of his version of mediocrity, then closed strong. By the playoffs, he had mostly come full circle and was back to playing in full bloom.
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He averaged 27.3 points in the seven-game series with the Raptors, hitting 45.5 percent of his field goal attempts, 42 percent of his three-pointers and 95 percent of his foul shots. He averaged 7.6 rebounds, too, along with 4.3 assists. He also made life miserable for Toronto's All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 17.9 points in the series – 5.6 points below his regular season average – and hit just 32 percent of his field goals.
The best thing to come out of the series for the Pacers, though, was George taking a step forward as the leader and go-to player. Two and three seasons ago, when they reached the Eastern Conference Finals, he was the precocious and promising kid who had older brothers in David West, Roy Hibbert and George Hill to lead the way. He just had to play. With this team, he had to carry the greatest burden and lead, too.
"It's...about being the one willing to do anything and everything, being the most physical guy out there," he said before the series ended. "I think my teammates have been drawn to the way I've approached this series. I'll be the one to make the first leap and have them follow."
Being a leader sometimes means saying the right things, too, both to teammates and to the media. George, who has two older sisters, has always seemed more comfortable staying in the background, being cooperative, and following the lead of older teammates. The same was true with Reggie Miller, who grew up with two older brothers and an older sister.
George, however, stepped forward at the end of this season. Once content to let Monta Ellis be the vocal leader, he eventually latched onto that role. Now, it seems there's no doubt who leads the team. That's partly because George is far more comfortable talking with the media than the introverted Ellis – he was voted the inaugural winner of the Mel Daniels Award, given to the Pacers player who displays the best media cooperation, by the local chapter of the Professional Basketball Writers Association – but also because his performances in the postseason practically demanded that he become more vocal.
"Been forced to," he said on Saturday, before the team flew to Toronto for Game 7. "I'm a talkative person so it's an easy transition, one I feel comfortable with."
It's not just talking, though. It's attitude. More than ever George showed the attitude of a leader. One simple statement following Game 7 seemed telling.
"I'm proud of my guys," he said.
He never would have said that in past seasons, but it crept into his conversations in this one. If he now views his teammates as "his guys," that's a good thing, as long as he continues to go about his business and his game the proper way. This series might have been a precursor rather than a peak.
"There's a lot to take away from it," he said. "The game really slowed down and I had a better understanding of my game. I learned a lot. I learned what I was made of. There's so much to take away from this series."
Toronto coach Dwayne Casey was impressed, as he should have been after seeing his own All-Star fail to match up with George.
"Unbelievable," Casey said afterward. "I tell you what, I remember trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant. And this young man reminds me of trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant back in the Laker days, like I was back in Seattle. I think he's back and I'm happy for him. Now that we're finished with him, I'm happy for him because he's a super young man. He represents everything basketball should be about."
George faces new challenges now. He'll continue to be bombarded with the trappings of fame, something he admittedly struggled with two years ago. He'll need to keep his ego in check and his work ethic unleashed. It wouldn't be a horrible idea for him to meet with Miller sometime to talk about that. The two have more and more in common, and George has the potential to exceed Miller's career because of his superior athleticism.
He'll need to be at his best in the most crucial moments, but keep in mind Miller's breakthrough playoff moment – his 25-point fourth quarter against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden – didn't come until his seventh season, when he was three months shy of 29 years old.
When you compare their postseason resumes after five years in the playoffs, George matches up well, despite being younger and a less relied-upon team member in his first two playoff experiences.
George's most recent series against the Raptors matches up even more favorably to, although it was lacking Miller's flair for ultra-dramatic moments. He's just 26, though, so time remains an ally. And there's another vital similarity. George has improved his scoring and shooting percentages in the playoffs from the regular season in his last three appearances. That's a rarity, given the improved level of competition and the grind of the playoffs, but a knack Miller also displayed.
The Pacers clearly need to add more pieces before they can contend for a championship. But the most difficult one to get is in place, and more prepared than ever to lead.
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