By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
WASHINGTON – On the morning of what became possibly the biggest night of his NBA life, Paul George sat in an empty arena and talked about the lessons he had learned, the strides he had taken, by going to the playoffs year after year and ultimately going home disappointed.
George, the Indiana Pacers’ All-Star wing player, spoke of Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards’ smooth 20-year-old shooting guard, a kid who is the same age George was when he first dipped a toe into this postseason business. He talked of John Wall, the Wizards’ quicksilver point guard who was born four months later (1990) but drafted nine spots higher (2010), and how Wall is playing catch-up in playoff savvy and wiles.
“Man, it’s gonna take those guys some time,” George said. “I remember my first playoff run my rookie year…”
Uh, since it came in 2011, in a five-game series against Chicago, it hadn’t exactly faded into the mists of time. But George went on for a bit, old head on a young body, in that if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now way to which we’re all prone.
“I know what to expect come around this time,” George said. “It’s just another level.”
Forget Beal and Wall. You want to know who took his game and himself to another level Sunday night?
Paul George did.
George had a night that showed, 10 days after his 24th birthday, that he’s not done learning yet. The Pacers’ young All-Star half-carried, half-willed his team to its 95-92 victory over Washington in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Verizon Center.
By scoring 39 points, by grabbing 12 rebounds, by nailing seven of his 10 3-point attempts and by cross-guarding and chasing around Beal for the 42 minutes the Wizards guard was on the court (then playing nearly five minutes before that), George kicked himself to another level of NBA renown. The guy who had drawn comparisons early in his career to Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen – overlooked college background, long arms, defensive bent – came through like Pippen and Michael Jordan Sunday, staking Indiana to a 3-1 lead in the series with a chance to close it out Tuesday in Indianapolis.
Grabbing the Pacers by the scruffs of their necks – he scored 28 points in the second half, helping to obliterate the Wizards’ 55-38 halftime lead – George demonstrated that experience and growth can come at any point. He had played 45 postseason games prior to Sunday, not one of them like this one.
“I kept wanting to try and give him a rest, and he kept saying no,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Usually I will override that, but he kept making big shots. When a guy is going like that, I leave him in. … It was a special performance.”
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 12, 2014
Vogel had talked with George before the game, offering to spare him the grind of shadowing Beal, Washington’s most dangerous scorer in the series (19.3 ppg through Game 3). “No, I want the matchup,” George told his coach. He considered Beal “single-handedly capable of beating us,” so he wasn’t going to leave that to Lance Stephenson or anyone else. (The way Stephenson’s been going, the Pacers might not want to leave the morning doughnut run to him.)
Said George: “I knew every horn that sounded wasn’t somebody coming to get me. I already had it in my head that I would pretty much go the whole distance.”
George got his only breather, a whole 1:37, near the end of the first quarter. But with Indiana’s bench playing like four guys grabbed at random off Pennsylvania Ave. – they got outscored 32-2 by Washington’s reserves – that was it. All the Pacers starters played big minutes, none played longer or lugged the load at both ends the way George did.
His team’s second quarter could have been disastrous – 11 points, 2-for-17 shooting, the Wizards racing to 11 fast-break points quicker than the Pacers could backpedal. But whether it was a rush of standard-issue adrenaline or a more frantic case of fight-or-flight, George stayed in.
Washington still was up 17 halfway through the third, 68-51, when – in some order – the Pacers stirred some, George got a second wind, Roy Hibbert find an awkward but effective groove offensively and a 17-2 run had all but silenced the Verizon Center crowd. There might have been huffing and puffing from the exertion but there apparently wasn’t an inordinate amount of woofing from George, even as he dragged his club back from the brink.
“To tell you the truth, he’s just a quiet guy,” Hibbert said. “We talk, we joke, but when it comes to basketball, I always believe in that guy no matter what.”
Said George: “We all looked at one another. We really didn’t think this game was going to be over with. We didn’t think we were going to lose this game. There was so much time left. … Even when they went on a run, it felt like it wasn’t blows that put us away.”
The Wizards scored 17 in the third quarter, George scored 13. They got 20 in the fourth, he had 15. From halftime on, Hibbert scored 15, as much as any two Washington guys, while George doubled up on Beal (eight points) and Wall (six).
The job George did on Beal might have slipped past some untrained eyes – Beal led Washington with 20 points and shot 7-for-14. But he had to move and work to shed George, which limited him as a deep threat and often put him in the lane with, like Wall, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert on the brain.
“He shot less jumpers,” George said. “He was more cutting to the basket and trying to pick up easy ones that way – which was a counter I felt like they did against me, to use the denial to get to the basket for back-door [plays].”
Said Beal: “He made my job tough. … I’ve got to do a better job of trying to get him tired.”
Good luck with that. Because George did not tire Sunday – because he did all the heavy lifting, from carrying his buddies’ butts to clean-and-jerking his profile ever higher – he and Indiana are one victory away from four days of rest. And another round.