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First step in Paul George's path to stardom came in unlikely setting

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Not long after the Miami Heat eliminated his Indiana Pacers in a tough seven-game Eastern Conference finals, Paul George was back in Miami Beach, strolling down Ocean Drive during the NBA Finals. It was a curious locale for George to pick for some rest and relaxation given that it also was the site of the Pacers' Game 7 loss and the resulting frustration that came with it. Even still, George found the trip into the den of his enemy somewhat cathartic.

"I wanted to put it behind me because I had a whole summer to look forward to," George told Yahoo Sports. "It was just a chance to reflect about what happened out there.

"I let it go there. It carried it over as far as my training, but as far as thinking and being down on myself, I let it go out there."

George and the Pacers met the Heat Tuesday night for the first time since the East finals, and this much is clear: They look as tough a matchup as ever for the three-time defending East champs.

George scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half as the Pacers beat the Heat 90-84. Indiana's big-man rotation of Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola dominated Miami by combining for 48 points and 20 rebounds. And when Indiana plays the Heat in Miami on Dec. 18, former All-Star forward Danny Granger will be back.

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Paul George scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half. (USA Today)

"You can't say we beat them when it counts," George said. "That's when we can be confident to say we were the best team in this league. Right now they are still the team in the East, the team to beat, the champion. Until we take that away from them, we have to settle with where we're at."

Nearly an hour after beating the Heat, George sat his locker room chair wrapped in towels after an unexpected cold shower left him shaking. He wasn't focused on Tuesday's victory as much as the June 3 Game 7 loss in Miami.

George scored just seven points that night before fouling out early in the fourth quarter. The Heat cruised to a 99-76 victory that George said "haunted me."

"There weren't tears, but I was really upset," Paul said. "To be one game away from the Finals. … There are so many elite players in this league that never made it to the Finals. To get that close and have nothing to get over the hump, I was upset with myself."

Paul had plans to return to his offseason home in Los Angeles to relax. His business manager, however, wanted him to attend a meeting in Miami. George opted not to skip, even though that seemed like the last place he'd want to spend his first days of vacation.

"There was a lot of love when I was out there," George said. "To be honest, there was nothing negative said. … Everywhere I ate there was a lot of congratulations. People said, 'You had us scared.' "

George eventually watched every East Finals game closely to see what he did right and wrong. He worked harder in the offseason than he previously had. And he gained confidence by playing for USA Basketball during its minicamp in July.

The Pacers also became stronger, acquiring Scola and adding depth to their bench with C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. But Indiana's biggest improvement has come from George further developing into one of the league's best players.

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LeBron James (left) says he's noticed the improvement in George's game. (AP)

"Every summer I take something from the season," George said. "It just happened to be playing against Miami again. The same steps I took the previous year against Miami I had to do again and come back a better player. That was the case for this summer coming into this year."

George's hard work has already appeared to pay off. He scored a career-high 43 points at Portland and is averaging a team-best 24.7 points to go along with 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He's also shooting 42.7 percent from 3-point range. And even after starting cold against Miami, he stayed confident and recovered strong in the second half.

George's swagger also has grown, capturing the attention of LeBron James.

"The biggest difference in Paul I think is confidence," James said. "He has the confidence of being the go-to guy knowing that he's the guy that has to go out and do it every night."

Eliminated by the Heat each of the past two postseasons, Paul is driven to make sure it doesn't happen a third time.

"I still remember that series, [but] as far as it haunting me, I'm over it," he said. "Players have to grow from here."

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