Paul George reminds us how bright the Pacers’ future can be

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LeBron James went around a Chris Bosh screen and threw a pass to Dwyane Wade. The Heat were using their three best players, a formula the Pacers have been unable to solve the last few years, dropping playoff series to Miami in 2012 and 2013 – and, maybe by the end of the week, 2014.

Suddenly, Paul George jumped the passing lane, stole the ball, surged toward the rim and separated himself from the Heat.

Erik Spoelstra stepped on the court and signaled timeout before George even dunked.

Miami, the back-to-back defending NBA champions, can keep stifling the Pacers. For now.

But George and crew won’t stop coming.

Indiana beat the Heat in Game 5 Wednesday, extending the Eastern Conference Finals at least to a Game 6 Friday and maybe a Game 7 Sunday. Even if the Pacers drop one of those, this is not over.

Lance Stephenson (23), George (24) and Roy Hibbert (27) are younger than Miami’s youngest starter – Mario Chalmers (28), and Chalmers is only 15 days younger than George Hill. The Pacers are too youthful, too hungry and too experienced to quit now.

Only Oklahoma City (in 2011 and 2012) has made back-to-back conference finals in the current 16-team playoff format with a lower average age than the Pacers, who have an average age of 26.4* in the last two postseasons.

*Weighted by minutes played in the playoffs, using a player’s age Feb. 1 of that season.

Of course, age alone doesn’t guarantee Indiana will eventually advance further. This team needs work – better chemistry, better ball-handling, better passing, better reserves and maybe better coaching.

But when George plays like he did tonight, it should be clear how high the ceiling and how wide the window are for Indiana.

At times, George looks like the NBA’s most athletic 3-and-D player. That role makes him extremely serviceable, good enough to help an otherwise talented Pacers team join the Eastern Conference elite. If his career unfolds as a 3-and-D+++ player who never taps his full potential, that would hardly be a tragedy.

Yet, there’s no reason George can’t become so much more.

With the Pacers’ season on the line, he scored 37 points, grabbed six rebounds and made six steals. He looked every bit a superstar, and if he hits that peak more often, he’ll be one rather than just imitate one from time to time.

Like George, the Pacers are still finding themselves. This is in no way a team on its last legs, even if its on its last legs in this series.

On the other hand, Indiana’s foil – Miami – is the third-oldest conference finalist in the last 15 years with an average age of 31.0. The Heat must either add youth to their supporting cast with little flexibility below the luxury-tax line, or they’ll eventually age out of contention.

There’s no guarantee Indiana will supplant them, but George has the potential to ensure it happens. He pulled the Pacers into a Game 6. He can pull them deeper into championship contention.

Game 5 was not a changing of the guard. The Heat still lead this series 3-2, and they’ll still likely win it.

But Paul George and the Pacers are making waves that could erode Miami’s beach soon. Maybe as soon as next season.

Patrick Ewing on Knicks firing David Fizdale: “Very disappointed in that”

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Knicks legend Patrick Ewing currently is waist deep… well, at his height maybe knee deep, in the college basketball season. His Georgetown team is off to a solid 6-3 start with a game at Syracuse coming up this Saturday.

He still has time for his SiriusXM radio show, “Center Court with Patrick Ewing,” where he said he was “very disappointed” to see David Fizdale let go.

“Very disappointed in that. I think that Fiz is an outstanding coach. I’ve had an opportunity to get to know him over the years, met him when he was working for the Hawks. And just want to let him know that I support him and I know he’s looking forward to his next opportunity, but he is a very good coach and I was disappointed to see him getting let go.”

Coaches back the other coaches, it’s a fraternity that way. Rick Carlise is the master of it.

Fizdale is not blameless for the current state of the Knicks, his rotations and ability to develop young players certainly are in question, but he wasn’t the root of the problem. The best analogy I can come up with is Fizdale was the first contestant sent home on “Chopped”: Nobody was going to make a delicious meal out of the horribly mismatched ingredients in that basket, but the chef still has to do something cohesive with it. Fizdale did not.

The question becomes, is team president Steve Mills — the long-time Knicks employee who has known how to survive in James Dolan’s world — going to finally be let go and a big name brought in, or are the Knicks just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Pacers fans still boo Paul George, he responds with 34 through three quarters (VIDEO)

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Don’t make Paul George angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry (if you’re the opposing team).

It was a couple of seasons ago, but the wounds of Paul George forcing his way out of Indiana are still fresh for Pacers fans, so they booed him when he handed the ball at points during the Clippers visit to Indiana.

George’s response? Go get buckets and tell the crowd to “shhh.”

Like 21 points in the first half buckets.

And 34 points after three quarters, with seven from beyond the arc.

The Clippers — without Kawhi Leonard on the back-to-back — were up double digits in the fourth quarter in Indiana. George will be your player of the game for L.A.

Kevin Love on latest rumors Cleveland will trade him: ‘Nothing’s changed’

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Kevin Love has heard it all before.

Rumors floated around Cleveland was going to trade Love in the summer of 2015 after his first season with the team. They sprung up again the next season at the trade deadline — before Love played a central role in Cleveland winning a ring. The rumors kept springing up, especially after LeBron James left. Then this past summer, Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension to stay in Cleveland.

That has not stopped the rumors.

Love was asked about the rumors and sounded unmoved by them but a little frustrated, via Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

“Nothing’s changed,” Love told ESPN after Cleveland’s morning shootaround at TD Garden. “What I mean by that is, since I got here they’ve been … since I f—ing got here, there’s been talk of me being traded, so it’s nothing different. If they decide to go that way, I’ve just got to know it’s part of the business, or if we decide to go that way, it’s part of the business.

“Truthfully, I don’t know how it’s going to play out, because I see both sides.”

This time it feels like Love could get moved, if not at the trade deadline then this summer — and he wants to go to a contender.

The logic is simple: Cleveland is rebuilding, Love is still a stretch four and good rebounder who can help a playoff team. Love is averaging 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, is shooting 37.1 percent from three, and remains one of the best outlet passers in the game. Boston, Denver, Portland and a host of other teams could use him this season.

The challenge is that massive contract, which is why a trade may be put off until next summer.

Whatever happens, Love isn’t going to stress over it.

It’s official: Gordon Hayward makes return to Celtics lineup Monday

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He beat the timeline by a full two weeks.

Gordon Hayward fractured his hand on a fluke play against the Spurs that required surgery to repair (he fractured the fourth metacarpal, the bone that connects the wrist to the ring finger). When he had surgery on Nov. 11, the timeline for a return was 6-8 weeks.

One month later, Hayward has been cleared to make his return Monday night against Cleveland.

This is good news for Boston and its offense. Hayward was having a bounce-back year through his first eight games, averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. Even more than Kemba Walker, it was Hayward who was the playmaker for others and kept the offense flowing.

Not that Boston struggled too much with Hayward out. The Celtics went 9-4 with a +5.9 net rating in the games he missed, although the team’s offense slid back to middle-of-the-pack without his scoring and shot creation.

He’s back, and Boston — the second best team in the East so far this young season — just got a little better.