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Ball Don't Lie

Paul George could make the Eastern Conference finals his own with a knockout Game 7

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Paul George exults during Game 6 (Getty Images)

Buried deep in Lee Jenkins’ recent fantastic Sports Illustrated profile of Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George was this aside about George’s still-developing all-around game:

Last week, George was watching Oklahoma City against Memphis on television in his apartment when Oklahoma City point guard and close friend Reggie Jackson made a quick first step to the basket. "This summer," George announced, "I want to work on that move." He must attack more, pull up less, and raise a shooting percentage that dipped to 41.9% this season with increased attempts. "I don't even know anymore where his ceiling is," says Walsh.

I don’t know what his ceiling is either, and while (as Eric Freeman noted earlier on Monday) we are running the risk of overrating George’s star potential at this exciting point in his career, this clearly still is a player on the make. George’s tantalizing all-around gifts seem suited for just about any facet of the game – all-world defense, perimeter shooting, post-up work, penetration and dishing – which makes him the perfect up-and-coming foil for a Miami Heat team built around three of the best all-around players of their generation.

To act as the perfect foil, though, George must seal the deal in Monday evening’s Game 7 against the Heat. And to do that, he is going to have to attack early and often, drawing fouls and getting to the line. And to do that, he is going to have to utilize his own quick first step and attack the basket.

That’s right. The key to Indiana’s first trip to Finals since 2000 might be Paul George playing more like Reggie Jackson. And, say it with me one more time, not that Reggie Jackson.

This wouldn’t be George saving a particularly poor series, either. The Pacers’ swingman has averaged 19.5 points per game in the face of LeBron James’ defense during the Eastern Conference finals, famously going toe-to-toe with the Heat star in Game 2 and showcasing an aggressive touch from the outset in Game 1. That aggressive touch has led to nearly five turnovers a game, though, something that nearly counters the 11.3 combined assists/rebounds he contributes to the cause.

Things have to clean up in Game 7. George has to find a way to pare down the miscues while getting to the line. George has shot as many as 11 free throws in a game during the duel with the Heat, and as little as zero, and the team’s most provocative perimeter talent cannot walk away from American Airlines Arena with a crumpled box score in hand that has him ending his season with just three or four freebies to his name, to say nothing of the turnovers. He has to attack that soft Miami middle, and make this game his own.

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Paul George also has to guard LeBron James. No big deal (Getty Images)

Indiana’s big breakthrough in Game 6 was discovering early on that the team’s perimeter attack could go after Miami’s small frontline in much the same way that Roy Hibbert and David West had been attacking the Miami “bigs” in games prior to the series-tying win. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra no doubt noticed this at about the same time the mugs on press row did, and he’ll have his team ready to slide-step into the sort of charges this charge-happy crew (featuring Scott Foster and Kenny Mauer, sigh) loves to whistle.

This is why George has to be creative, and he has to play smart. Because potential and “look how well he’s playing in just his third year!”-storylines go out the window once June hits.

If George is going to be treated like the star so many are ready to anoint him as, he’ll have to come through with a star turn in Game 7. Big minutes, high efficiency, quick decision making, and million dollar finishes to end million dollar moves. Pacer fans can’t wake up Tuesday morning giddy at the prospect of how great Paul George will be in his prime. They have to wake up on Tuesday morning giddy at the thought of Paul George leading the Pacers to yet another victory, this time in San Antonio, on June 6. George had only 48 hours between Games 6 and 7 to make the leap between well-regarded young star and series-shaping franchise killer, but that doesn’t mean he can’t follow through on all that promise on Monday evening.

It starts with the rounding off of George’s game. An amalgamation, a well-forged alloy that should be lurking just below the surface after a long season leading Indiana with Danny Granger on the bench, and especially after learning from those 18 Pacer postseason games he’s helped guide since April 21.

It’s in Paul George’s character. Just three years into his career, though, is it in his game? Game sevens tend to give us all sorts of answers, luckily.

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