By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
VIDEO: Paul George leads the Pacers to victory in Game 1
INDIANAPOLIS – Certain words — such as “happy,” “complacent” and “a lack of urgency” — still get uttered inside the Indiana locker room, way past the point at which the PC police should have banished them.
That would be Pacer Correctness, by the way, which should have excised such musings from the players’ vocabularies a year or two ago.
When a team commits itself to the arduous, round-by-round ascent to an NBA championship the way Indiana has – first round in 2011, second round in 2012 and so on – it ought to be clear by now that there is no happy, there is no complacent, until they’re passing around the Larry O’Brien trophy, tugging on commemorative snapbacks and squabbling over the parade route.
That the Pacers, over and over, have let themselves relax and savor mere scraps of partial success speaks to their maturity, their resolve and whether they have the belly for the fight they’ve entered.
It speaks to the career arc of Paul George and his team’s dire need for him to be and play fully grown-up. Right now.
George has been terrific so far — 22.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.0 apg, 42.4 3FG% in 14 playoff games — but getting where Indiana wants to go only happens when a team’s best player accepts the grim task and heavy responsibility of stepping up night in, night out. George took another step in the right direction in his team’s Game 1 victory, scoring 24 points to lead the balanced offense while picking his spots to give the Pacers what they needed, when they needed it.
In the first half, George took only four shots and made two, but he passed for six of his 2014 playoff-high seven assists as the Pacers found openings in the Heat’s normally stifling defense. In the second half, George outscored everyone with 18 points, asserting himself most obviously on the heels of buckets by Dwyane Wade or LeBron James.
And since he was matched up so often on James, when George did so, you could almost see his chest swell, his shoulders square, as he realized he could give back as well as or better than he took from the Miami star.
Remember the clamor George caused back in March when he said he hoped James could mentor him (“I wish some day we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to”)? It seemed weenie, too deferential, for a guy and a team that want everything James and the Heat have. If Indiana is going to grab at that over the next few weeks, James may inadvertently help him raise his game to the next level but it’s going to have to come from within, not from a benevolent rival in an awkward big bro’/little bro’ relationship.
George has been compared often in his young career to Scottie Pippen, sharing with the Chicago Bulls’ Hall of Famer his length, his placid demeanor, his defensive inclinations and his versatility. But what Indiana needs from George now is less Pippen and more Michael Jordan.
Less George in Game 6 against Washington, settling in as a defender vs. Bradley Beal while scoring 12 points, and more George from Game 4, when he dragged Indiana to victory with 39 points, 12 rebounds and 7-of-10 shooting.
Listen to this comment from George after Sunday’s victory over Miami and the “killer instinct” that’s been so elusive for Indiana: “That will be the test. We’ve been complacent many times in series, and throughout the whole year. We just can’t get complacent.”
Now try to imagine Jordan or James or Kobe Bryant or a half dozen of the league’s other cutthroat competitors saying that. Inconceivable, isn’t it? They’d glare at whoever asked the question and grind their molars.
That’s the level to which George has to take his game and his attitude over what’s left of this series (and beyond, if there is any beyond). It’s his call. If you want to beat someone in the spring, you can’t think about getting mentored by the guy in the summer.