Paul George and his Indiana Pacers will play the Miami Heat on Tuesday. They’ll play the Heat four times this season, with all signs pointing to an eventual Eastern Conference finals rematch this spring that should last six or seven games. The Pacers played the Heat 11 times last season, counting that seven-game Conference finals run that Miami prevailed in, and Indiana took on Miami ten times the year before – ultimately bowing out in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
That’s a potential 32 games between the two teams between the winter of 2011 and spring of 2014, with George having to toil against LeBron James defensively the entire time. Including, as we referenced earlier, a matchup in mere hours as the two are set to link up again on Tuesday night.
This ongoing rivalry, alongside Kevin Durant’s brilliant 36-point night in OKC’s thrashing of Indiana on Sunday evening, may have been why George went with Kevin Durant over LeBron James as the NBA’s toughest player to cover. From Scott Agness at the Pacers’ website:
Following the Pacers’ 118-94 loss in Oklahoma City, George told reporters that Durant is his toughest cover in the league.
“It is,” he said. “It is a tougher matchup. I watch their games, I watch a lot of NBA games. And offensively, KD is most of the times he’s scoring in bunches off of iso plays and one-on-one plays.
“And when they play against us, he’s moving a lot. He’s the screener, he’s getting back-screened and he’s coming off pin-downs and it’s a little different when I’m guarding him and it makes it a tougher cover.”
As Agness went on to examine, Durant didn’t score a single of his 36 points in an isolation set against George, and he didn’t get to the free throw line during a one-on-one move either. He simply run, cut and curled his way to a 14-23 night from the floor that would leave any MVP candidate (whether you’re referring to Durant or George) exhausted, much less one in George who had just contributed a 28-point, six-assist game in a win over San Antonio less than 24 hours earlier.
Still … tougher than LeBron?
It’s hard to quibble with George, an All-Defensive candidate that knows either player (alongside Carmelo Anthony, whom PG had to attempt to work on during the 2013 playoffs) far too well. LeBron’s game is entirely different, however, in myriad ways. Ways that may allow us to consider George’s choice of Durant as the league’s toughest a selection that comes free of gamesmanship. Because LeBron James is the type of player that could drop a 28-point, nine-assist, 12-rebound night without needing a quarter of the half-court sets that Durant so brilliant flies through during his typical term.
James can destroy before George even has his back turned after a Luis Scola miss – securing the rebound and dashing ahead in cross-matched coverage for the score or pinpoint dish. It’s true that LeBron’s half-court attack has changed in oh so many wonderful ways since his stagnant 2007-2011 run – his cutting, footwork, shooting and post game has improved considerably – but he can also dominate without having to rely on Miami’s (much improved) half court action as a crutch.
This isn’t to dismiss Durant as someone who needs screens and helpers to get things done. It’s just a different position, even if they’re both listed as small forward. Put it this way: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were better players, but John Stockton and Reggie Miller were probably tougher to guard. Watch the action and defense away from the ball, and you’ll agree.
While we inaccurately and inadvertently dismiss Durant as the Reggie Miller to LeBron James’ MJ, understand that the NBA’s leading scorer wants nothing to do with talking about George’s praise, or anything having to do with the Pacers all-around swingman in the slightest. From Darnell Mayberry at the Oklahoman:
The day before the Thunder hosted Indiana, a certain topic of conversation was considered taboo inside the confines of Oklahoma City's practice facility.
It was rising star Paul George.
“KD don't want me answering this question,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins responded, in reference to Kevin Durant, when asked about the Pacers forward, “because he's getting tired of hearing about Paul George.”
Mayberry also reports that Durant played Sunday’s game with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, yelling “write about that!” at the press row when he left the contest with Oklahoma City up 20 points on the team with the NBA’s best record. Reserve guard Reggie Jackson also sensed something different with his team’s franchise player:
“He came out with a vengeance,” Thunder guard Reggie Jackson said of Durant. “I think he's tired of hearing about it, too. Whatever got him going, though, I'm happy we got the win.”
This is the price George has to pay for acting as the go-to guy on the NBA’s Next Great Team. The Pacers took their Game 7 loss to the Heat last season to heart over the summer, and sprinted out of the 2013-14 gate with a vengeance this season – winning 18 of their first 20 before falling to Oklahoma City. That run was admirable enough, but it got the rest of the league’s attention in ways both good and bad.
Now comes a date they’ve had circled on their calendars for months, a chance to upend the back-to-back (and through Indy both times) champion Heat at home on Tuesday. It may only be the second week in December, but a win against Miami could go a long way toward inching toward home court advantage throughout the Eastern playoff bracket (either by way of the East’s best record, or a head-to-head tiebreaker), and letting the Heat know that they’re going to need four games out of seven in Miami to topple a Pacer team that defends its home turf without exception.
Was placing Kevin Durant above LeBron James a bit of gamesmanship along the way, or just the wheezing aftereffects of having to chase Durant around for 36 points worth of storm and stress?
Whatever the influence, Paul George isn’t wrong. He’s just going to be tired, after 70-some minutes of guarding both Kevin Durant and LeBron James, spaced out over 70-some hours.
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