This has to be Paul George’s game. Has to.
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals could be the final game of the Indiana Pacers’ season, just as was the case in Game 5 when the Pacers barely downed the Heat 93-90 to extend the series and the team’s season. Indiana needed each and every bit of the 24 minutes LeBron James spent sitting with foul trouble, and they needed every bit of Paul George’s 31 second-half points (37 overall) in order to down the defending champs. George’s second-half minutes ended up matching James’ total minutes for the game.
Now, the series shifts to Miami, LeBron can expect a whole batch of homespun make-up calls and George will once again be faced with the task of turning that “zero” that he starts each game with in the points colum all the way up to something in the 30s. Or mid-30s. Possibly 40-something, for just the second time all season, and first time in the playoffs.
That’s always been a problem for George, who entered the NBA as an all-around project and stands four seasons later as Indiana’s great final scoring hope. The Pacers have never been a great offensive team, and though the team’s defense improved considerably in Game 5, the Heat have more or less sussed out how to work around the gifts of Roy Hibbert, who famously boggled Miami during last season’s seven-game playoff duel in these same Eastern Conference finals. Hibbert may have stamped out the Heat’s best shot at a win on Wednesday by rotating expertly to a driving James in the game's waning seconds, but his presence hasn’t been nearly as significant as it was in last year’s conference finals.
With Hibbert more or less countered in this series, the onus falls on George to replicate or improve upon his Game 5 showing. Which, to any Pacers fan that has been closely following George’s ascension into a franchise player, has to be a frightening prospect.
This isn’t to take away from his gifts, his drive and his work in Game 5, but George is a flinger. His ball-handling and footwork isn’t on par with players like James or Dwyane Wade – frankly, whose is? – so he’s often left to hit tough, contested shots that seem unreliable at worst and shaky at best. George did fine work in Game 5 working both the passing lanes and individual defenders in loping toward his six steals and the subsequent transition forays. His half-court work? It doesn’t feel like something you can pack up and take to Miami.
George missed six of his first 3-point shots before nailing three of his last six in that second-half flourish. He did so without much enviable action from a Pacers offense that has looked downright embarrassing at times in this offseason, never so much as in Wednesday’s brutal first half against the Heat. Paul did extremely well in Game 6 to carry Indiana offensively when a James and Wade-led attack closed the Pacers advantage to a single-possession game, answering just about every Heat score with a bomb of his own from the outside. But outside of the corner placement on some of those jumpers, one has to think the Heat would take their chances with him tossing up those sorts of shots again.
The Heat’s preference is for George to barely touch the ball at all, what with George Hill working through an inconsistent postseason, Lance Stephenson mentally and physically taking himself out of games with his first-through-third quarter goofiness, and Hibbert needing a space designed to fit the entirety of a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in order to gather himself after catching a pass. The Pacers may have led the league in defensive efficiency this season, but they weren’t a steal-heavy club in doing so, and the Heat know that increased attention will take away some of those careless turnovers and eventual scores on the break for George.
The Heat are that good, and that smart, and this can be counted on. In response, George will have to continue to find his way in the half-court, and that’s been no sure thing for him throughout these playoffs. His per-minute and efficiency numbers are the same as they were in the regular season, impressive marks considering the quality of competition, but that doesn’t mean George has been strikingly consistent as he goes about his offensive business.
Hibbert was the key in 2013, David West could finally break free of the Heat’s quick feet offensively, and Lance Stephenson could actually betray basketball karma and back his way into doing something special for these Pacers, but this will be George’s game to take over. He has to be the one initiating quick decision-making off both the rebound and in the half court, he has to encourage movement from his teammates on the offensive end, and it’s his flick of the wrist that has to aim true as he works that burgeoning mid-range game and up-and-down 3-point shooting.
The Pacers like to think they got here as a team, but there has been infighting, furrowed brows and off-court intrigue throughout the tumultuous second half of the regular season and five-week playoff run. Still, throughout the storm and stress, this group truly does have more than enough to top a Heat team that in many ways is not as good as the one that it took to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2013.
Paul George shot 2 of 9 in that game, fouling six times and scoring only seven points. It was a contest that haunted both George and his teammates all season, inspiring them to a white hot 46-13 start to this season.
The Pacers worked all year for a shot at a Game 7 at home, and they’re one win away from that hypothetical turning into a reality. Paul George is going to have to be the guy that takes them home, though. There is no way around it.
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