- Heat vs. Pacers: Series Hub
INDIANAPOLIS – If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself, fabled Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle famously said.
And if Indiana Pacers wing player Paul George had known he was going to play this long and hard this season, he might have gone about things a little differently, too.
George never has had a season quite like this. When he takes the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tonight for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT), it will be his 95th game, regular or postseason. He already has logged 3,597 minutes across seven months. Plus practices, plus the All-Star Game.
Compare that to last season: George played in 77 games total in the post-lockout NBA, with two rounds of playoffs for Indiana rather than the three so far. His minutes were lighter — just 2,359.
On sheer workload alone, the difference is staggering. George has played in nearly 20 percent more games than in 2011-12. He has been on the court an astonishing 52.5 percent more.
And that doesn’t even touch the other aspects of his growing game and responsibility for the Pacers. George took a quantum leap in his role for Indiana, stepping into the void opened by Danny Granger‘s knee issues, shouldering the duties of being a primary scorer while maintaining his spot as the Pacers’ premier perimeter defender. He became the focal point of most opposing coaches’ game plan – and soldiered on. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he became the target of rivals’ hard fouls beyond what he had experienced before and he weathered those, too, without complaint.
Now, so deep into this extended third season of his career, George can look you in the eye and make you believe that, at 23, he’s not fatigued. But feeling tired and being tired can be two different things. And even if he’s fine on both fronts, the reality George faces now is: He has to get better.
“I thought about it the other day,” George said Monday. “Had I trained and really prepared myself for stepping into this role this year, it would have helped me much more. But it’s good that I’m going through this. It’s a learning process. It’s growth for me.””
George did participate last summer with the USA Select Team that provided a practice squad against which Team USA could prep for the London Olympics. That put him up against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and the rest essentially as a sparring partner.
Later, after the Games, George joined James on a Nike trip to Shangai, China, where the two put on youth clinics and squeezed in a few workouts. But they were nothing like the Hell Weeks I and II that James and Durant have put themselves through the past two summers, those series of two-a-day sessions with James’ trainer in Akron.
“Maybe [George should join] those summer workouts with ‘Bron,” Miami forward Udonis Haslem said. ” ‘Bron don’t take many days off. So if he gets in in the gym with ‘Bron and some of those guys, I’m sure they’ll put in some heckuva work.”
Maybe, now that George is pledging to the fraternity of NBA superstars. For the time being, though, he is getting treated like a newbie at Omega House, steered away from the real party and dead-ended in a room with Mohammet, Jugdish, Sidney and Clayton.
Actualy, it’s worse: George was getting steered down in the low post on defense, backed in by James through four, five, six dribbles for an inevitable, devilish left- or right-handed scoring move. Welcome to the party, kid.
Exerting so much energy defensively seemed to sap George a little at the other end. Meanwhile, he was navigating through and around James and Dwyane Wade, adjusting to Miami coach Erik Spoelstra‘s own defensive adjustments on him. Pacers coach Frank Vogel seemed satisfied with George’s 13 points and eight assists, but really, Indiana needs more from him … at a time when more can be hard to find.
“Every game is going to be tougher and tougher,” George said. “We’ve got to find different ways to strike because it won’t be the same way every game. We’ve got to learn on the fly. We’ve got to find energy from different angles.”
It is tough for nearly all of them, taking this step to the NBA’s elite individually and as a team. Indiana has done the step-by-step thing familiar to budding championship-quality teams, from first round in 2011 to conference semifinals last spring to this. George has stepped up, too.
But if the Pacers stick to the script, then it all stops here. They aren’t ready for that, even though they might not be ready to ad-lib either.
“It is hard,” said Wade, who won NBA titles six years apart and was a different player from the first to the second. “And one thing is – not everyone wants to do it – but you got to earn your stripes. Sometimes you’ve got to go through what LeBron went through. He got here and it didn’t work. He got to The Finals and he lost. And he had to build his way back up.
“It’s not easy to win in this league. When you reach this level, you’re playing against another team that’s just as good as you are. It’s very tough to be a champion. Once you win, you really respect that. If you haven’t won, I don’t know if you really know how hard it is. This is as tough as it’s going to get.”
Wade was an exception, nailing down a ring at the end of his third season against a veteran Dallas team in the 2006 Finals. Then again, he had a big buddy named Shaquille O’Neal, still dominant, on his side.
“I was put in a great position early in my career,” Wade said. “I actually thought I was going to win it my second year in the NBA – you couldn’t tell me otherwise. But we didn’t. We lost in the Eastern Conference finals, Game 7 at home. Then my third year we made a lot of changes in Miami and was able to put together a championship team when I thought the year before we had a better team.
“So you just don’t know when it’s going to happen for you. You’ve got to work as hard as you can and when you get the opportunity, you’ve got to try and seize it.”
George still wants to do that here and now. It does not get easier.