INDIANAPOLIS – With something as simple as the pressing of a palm and six warm words – "I got you back, young fella" – LeBron James had the power to manufacture a living lore surrounding Paul George, a rising young talent who had been downright gleeful, insisting the blessing bestowed upon him had been a moment he'd never, ever forget.
For the next day and a half, George's life was filled with testimonials over his burgeoning stardom. You're one of us now, young fella. "He's going to be a great one," James marveled in the losing locker room on Friday night. How George loved the way that the MVP's praise washed over him, the way it covered him like a second skin.
As it turns out, no one turns validation into vanquishment as swiftly as LeBron James. The best player on the planet built up George in Game 2, only to tear him down in Game 3. As soon as the ball was thrown up on Sunday night James did something that is so rare for him: He set aside all the cuteness, all the creative genius, backed George down into the post and obliterated him.
James dribbled and dribbled and dribbled, turned on him and used the backboard for a sweeping left-handed hook shot.
"I think they might try to take away my left in Game 4 now," James said.
"So I will shoot it with my right."
This is the way James tortured George on Sunday night, the way he tortures teams every night of the season. Before long, James was running this devastating 114-96 victory out of the post with passes that generated swift ball movement and sure shots for those teammates desperately needing to become immersed into this Eastern Conference finals.
"Our defense isn't designed to let him take five, six, seven dribbles and just back his way to the basket," Pacers forward David West seethed. "We've got to get there and help Paul."
From Dwyane Wade to Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers to Ray Allen, James understood that he needed to balance his own destructive desires on George along with elevating those teammates he'll need to win a championship.
The Birdman's been magnificent for the Heat, but he can't be James' co-pilot on the way to a title. As the ball moved swiftly, the Pacers were forever a step slow chasing it. Once Wade finally rediscovered his driving game and shot-making, once Haslem played pop-a-shot in the corner, the Pacers found themselves stranded in that nowhere land where defenses go to die against the Heat.
"Just [Haslem] hitting those shots really made us have to think on defense, 'Who do we guard?'" Roy Hibbert confessed. "Do we guard the paint or do we have to go out to the shooters in the corner?"
Pity poor George, whom James overmatched on defense and ultimately had second-guessing himself on offense. George had come out passing, unable to get to the rim on a collapsing Heat defense. When the Pacers desperately needed his offense to withstand the Heat's torridness, George missed seven of his ten shots. From a Game 2 heir to greatness, George looked like a lost 23-year-old in Game 3 with 13 points and five turnovers.
Asked whether James had set up his young teammate, West simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know what goes on in [LeBron's] mind."
Around the Pacers, there were those who wondered if this hadn't been one marvelous manipulation on James' part. James loves to pull close young players who impress him, whom he thinks could be a threat and dictate a relationship on his own terms. He did it with Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. In a lot of ways, he's the NBA's pied piper – players young and old want to be his friend – and he's judiciously managed it to his own devices.
And make no mistake: James undoubtedly listened to everyone suggesting that he had been too nice of a guy, too welcoming of George. Michael Jordan never would've done it, they insisted. Sure, sure. Jordan never lured his opponents into his web. A young New York Knicks coach, Jeff Van Gundy, called Jordan a "con man," for the way that he pulled Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley into friendships, the way that he gave all the NBA's stars roles in his "Space Jam" movie.
Nevertheless, James delivered a message to those who suggested that he had been too empowering of Paul George. This time, he smothered him. LeBron James dragged him down into the post, bounce by bounce and used blunt force to overpower him, leading the Heat with 22 points.
"I have to do a better job battling him down there," George said.
For his bony, 6-foot-9 body, resistance is futile. Does James go back down there in Game 4, and dare the Pacers to bring those hard double teams? Do they dare him to find cutters for layups and perimeter shooters for three-pointers?
This is how the Heat take you apart, how they break down your defense and ultimately douse your spirit.
For the way that James had George so thrilled with himself, his rising profile on Friday, everything had changed on Sunday night. George was battered and bewildered in the losing locker room, the Pacers down two games to one and understanding the season suddenly rides on Game 4 on Tuesday night.
LeBron James had turned basketball onto Paul George, had everyone talking about him, and then he flashed his own Klieg light upon him in Game 3. Bounce by bounce, merciless move upon merciless move, the best player on the planet backed the kid all the way down, validation into vanquishment without warning.
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