MIAMI – Every day, Paul George marched into the gymnasium on the UNLV campus and immersed himself into the education of a young basketball lifetime. As an understudy practice player for USA Basketball, his assignment was the impossible: Come take turns guarding Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Come take your beating, young fella.
Ten months ago, the NBA's biggest stars were preparing for the Olympics in London. George was preparing for the NBA's biggest stars.
"We were there to be practice dummies," George said late Friday. "Guys would say, 'You understand what they're doing to us, right?' "
"Yeah," George responded. "So?"
From the USA Select scrimmages in July to Game 2 of these Eastern Conference finals on Friday night, George had come so far, so fast, that suddenly his Pacers are standing eye-to-eye with the defending NBA champions. Suddenly, LeBron James wasn't treating George like an understudy, but a starry peer.
Before the stunning fourth-quarter stand that delivered the Pacers a 97-93 victory on the shores of Biscayne Bay, before a genius James' performance of 36 points and eight rebounds had been punctuated with two turnovers in the final minute, the NBA's Most Valuable Player delivered a burgeoning young star a validation of his rapid ascent.
After George leaped into the rafters to impale the 6-foot-10 Chris Andersen with a dunk, James rushed the ball down the floor and hit a 30-footer at the buzzer of the third period. It was a magnificent sequence, two spectacular plays within a 5.1-second window that inspired James to change direction on his way to the Heat's huddle.
James chased down George, reached out his hand and pressed palm on palm.
"I got you back, young fella," James told him.
For a moment, George had to gather himself. Here unfolded a most surreal scene in a surreal rise out of mid-major college basketball, the evolution of James' dutiful understudy into James' problem.
"That was a moment for me," George said, "that I'll always remember."
For the Pacers, this was an acknowledgment from James that they're beyond formidable, that they've grown into a genuine threat. After David West made the two deflections on James' passes in the final minute, something struck West about the Indiana celebration on the floor to commemorate a Game 2 victory: There was none. A year ago in the conference semifinals, the Pacers danced and hugged and celebrated a split in South Florida.
"We acted like we were glad to win a game, or glad to be able to win two games," West said.
This time, they act like they believe they should win the series; that they will win this series. So far, there's two telling themes unfolding: the Heat haven't an answer for Roy Hibbert; and Miami's struggles to find consistent contributions beyond the greatness of James. So far, the patience and poise of these Pacers – withstanding wave upon wave of James' onslaughts – has buoyed them.
The Pacers are big, strong and tough, but George is the closest they have to a traditional NBA superstar. His 22 points and six assists were a difference for these Pacers. After watching him in these first two games, James declared, "He's going to be a great one."
Sooner than later, too. George is 23 years old, the NBA's freshly minted Most Improved Player, and the earnestness that he brought to the USA Basketball Select Team less than a year ago has gone a long way into molding him.
George made a mistake defending James on the final play of Game 1, and he wouldn't let that happen again with James' driving for redemption late Friday. Everyone rotated for these Pacers, creating an impenetrable wall between James and the rim. They turned James into a passer, and turned his passes into turnovers.
James became discombobulated in the final minute, as much a testament to the defensive discipline and acumen of these Pacers coaches and players. They knew what was coming – "We sniffed out their play," West said – and they responded with championship stops to usurp home-court advantage.
To beat these Heat – to complete one of the great upsets in the NBA history – Indiana needs more and more out of George, need him to take his first All-Star season and close it hard. Perhaps James didn't do the Heat a favor with the way that he responded to George, perhaps it was a needless gesture to inflate the confidence of a kid learning that his endless 6-foot-9 body comes out of some futuristic mail-order basketball catalog.
"I've got the most respect for LeBron," George said. "I look up to him."
Ten months ago, this was George's mandate: Get into Bryant and Durant, Anthony and James. Get into the NBA's biggest stars and learn the most valuable lessons of all. "I want to be great," George said. "I want to be a leader in this league. For me, that was a front-row seat for how to be one of the best players in this league."
Paul George comes fast for LeBron James now – for all of these Heat – and he's bringing the Pacers with him. He's good, on his way to great, and the planet's best player had to stop and acknowledge it. This was a night that George will never forget, a night that he truly arrived as a star in the NBA. No more understudy, no more practice dummy.
Wherever Paul George believed he belonged in this league, LeBron James had an unmistakable message delivered from Kobe and 'Melo and Durant on Friday night: Sooner than later, young fella, you'll be one of us.
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