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Paul George posted photos on social media of him taking bites of his gold medal from the Rio Olympics, a clichéd image that represented closure for an uncommon chapter of his life. Finishing the task for Team USA meant the end of reliving his darkest day, of putting behind the reconstruction of his body and the restoration of his place among the game’s elite.
Now, George is focused on returning the Indiana Pacers to relevance and reclaiming what he felt should’ve been his before his career was so rudely interrupted.
For so long, LeBron James has been the insurmountable obstacle for so many players in the Eastern Conference, whether he’s in Miami or Cleveland. But the last man standing from Indiana’s past two conference finalists, George believes he’s primed and has the team to possibly take down the self-proclaimed King and the reigning NBA champions.
“Honestly, I look at us challenging them. I’ve been in the East and I’ve been No. 1 with LeBron being on a team,” George told The Vertical in a recent telephone interview, harkening back to when the Pacers finished with the best regular-season record in the East in 2013-14, the season before his gruesome Team USA leg injury. “Really, what I’m looking at is it coming down to me getting us past the conference finals. … I’m confident in myself. I’m confident in what I can do.”
George’s playoff duels with James established him as a star on the rise but never a rival, especially because he never won. Overcoming the adversity of the past two years, however, has given George a better sense of what he’s achieved and more belief that he belongs on a similar stage. “I’ve always matched up with him like, ‘I know he can do this, I know he can do that,’ ” George told The Vertical about James. “Not in an awe fashion, but it’s more so, ‘I’m not supposed to win these games. This is supposed to be the best dude in the NBA. I’m trying to challenge him. I know what I’m up against.’ Now it’s, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready for you. I’m a veteran. I know you, you know me. Let’s meet here, let’s get this job done.’ I’m prepared. I’ve had time to figure this out. I’ve had time to lick my wounds. I’m ready.”
George added that his experience in Brazil – where he was the trusted sixth man and designated defensive stopper for a team that won the United States’ third consecutive gold medal – did wonders for his confidence. During preparations for the Olympics, Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving said George had “an aura” about him that wasn’t previously present. When told that he carries himself differently on the court, George agreed.
“Definitely,” George told The Vertical. “Now I look at the game [differently]. Before it was a job. Basketball was a job and coming back from it and getting a second chance, it’s like, I’m doing this because I love it. It’s a real passion behind it. So when I’m on the court, good or bad, I’m not supposed to be out there. So after that incident, I’m not supposed to be doing this. I’m not supposed to be doing that, so I do have that glow in a way. It’s a good energy, a good vibe that I can actually do what I love again.”
George has the option to become an unrestricted free agent in two years, but Pacers president Larry Bird made it clear this week that the Pacers are prepared to give the three-time All-Star a contract extension whenever he’s ready to sign. Bird was busy this past summer trying to persuade his best player to stick around by building a team that can take advantage of George’s expanding game.
The Pacers replaced Frank Vogel with Nate McMillan, acquired hometown All-Star Jeff Teague to lead a more up-tempo offense, ensured that George won’t have to spend many more unwilling minutes at power forward with the addition of Thaddeus Young, and found a low-post scoring threat in former All-NBA center Al Jefferson. George raved about the experience that has been added to the roster and is also especially high on second-year big man Myles Turner, who participated with the Team USA select squad after showing some promising flashes as a rookie.
“I’m happy,” George told The Vertical. “Nobody wants to play for a team that’s not competitive. That’s a year wasted. I’m happy he took that, in the back of his mind, that while I’m still young, while I’ve still got some years in my prime – or starting my prime – to keep me competitive over here.”
The Cavaliers remain the favorite to send James to a seventh consecutive NBA Finals appearance this season, but George has been encouraged about the Pacers’ prospects after many of his new teammates began gathering for summer workouts in Indianapolis while he was chasing gold in Rio de Janeiro. “They made that commitment to come early and want to be here, and that’s something else,” George told The Vertical. “This is probably the most excited I’ve been for a team, coming into the season. I think we have a lot of weapons, a lot of options. We’re very underrated for what we have over here. With everything that I’ve grown from this Olympic run, to the closing of last playoffs, I feel like I’m ready and poised for a big year.”
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