America, meet Paul George.
He’s the Pacer that hit the insane, dramatic three pointer that sent Game 1 against the Heat into overtime. He’s the guy that drew the superstar call on Dwyane Wade, then with ice water in his veins hit three free throws to give Indiana the lead with 2.2 seconds left in overtime. He’s the guy assigned the thankless task of guarding LeBron James and did a pretty good job — between the start of the second quarter and the end of regulation George held him to 6-of-15 shooting (which is pretty dang good against the two-time MVP). He’s the guy who led Indiana with 27 points, plus had 5 assists and got to the free throw line 11 times.
This was his national coming out party — he’s a big-time NBA star, not just a guy basketball people admire…
Except that his not how this game will be remembered.
What will be talked about is LeBron’s layup — a play where George overplayed LeBron and in doing so gave him a direct path to the rim. What’s going to be talked about is Miami escaping with a win in Game 1.
And George will be an afterthought. Which is too bad, because he was brilliant — and the Pacers wouldn’t have been anywhere near a position to win without him. Still, George knows how this will be remembered.
“I gotta understand, you make LeBron shoot a jumper at that point,” George said after the game of the final play.
“I grabbed him after the game and quickly told him to forget about the last play,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s a third year player, and he’s playing the best player in the world, someone that is arguably going to go down as one of the best players in the history of the game, and he’s just playing him toe-to-toe, playing his tail off, competing very hard. I’m very proud of his whole effort.”
George is not a guy that casual basketball fans knew — a lot of those fans can’t name any Pacers players — but basketball people have been admiring him all season. George was an up-and-coming player who got thrust into a much larger role this year with Danny Granger being out — George went from being the second option to the guy everybody counted on for points.
And he responded — he took on much more of the Pacers offense (23.7 percent usage rate) and earned 17.4 points a game, not to mention the 7.6 rebounds, 4 assists and being a key part of the NBA’s best defense. All that earned him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award this year.
That didn’t mean he was known. He’s a guy with two first names who played his college ball in Fresno and now toils in Indiana — not many people have seen him play, or really watched him if they have.
And their first half impression of him was not going to be great — he shot 1-of-4 with three turnovers. He struggled against LeBron in the first quarter but in the second played some good defense.
But in the second half and overtime he carried the Pacers — 25 points, he got to the line 11 times, and hit 3-of-4 from three. On defense he didn’t stop LeBron but he made the Heat star really work for his points. He made LeBron far less efficient.
George kept the Pacers right in this game. People noticed.
Next people knew his name after, with less than a second left in regulation, he hit a 29-foot three that sent the game into overtime.
Next people were screaming his name — with time running out in overtime and the Pacers down two the play in a scramble after Norris Cole knocked the ball free. But George got it, took a three again and drew the foul from Dwyane Wade. We’ll be generous and say it was a borderline call — certainly not a call you expect to see made at the end of games — but George got it. It was a superstar call and the refs gave it to him. Then he coolly sank all three free throws and had the Pacers up one with 2.2 seconds left.
But George made some mistakes on the night. Like the lime-green paisley shirt he wore to the press conference. Or the pass he threw late in the game to Sam Young on the bench (apparently mistaking him for a guy in the game).
Or when he overplayed LeBron’s entry pass with two seconds left in overtime and gave him a path to the basket and the game winner.
Like it was for the Pacers, for George this was a learning experience. A painful one.
But in three resilient NBA years he has shown he learns from his mistakes. And that could be trouble for the Heat because George almost lifted the Pacers to a Game 1 win.