Last season in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Miami Heat, Paul George didn’t necessarily look like one of the Indiana Pacers’ five best players. This year, playing against the Heat in the Conference Finals, Paul George has looked like a top-5 NBA player. His growth has been remarkable.
PG broke into the NBA following two seasons at Fresno State with a solid rookie year in 2010-2011 as a rotation player. Last year he moved into a starting slot for Indiana, and despite a no-show in the series with Miami (he shot 36.5% from the field in the series) George showed major improvement, scoring 12 per game during the regular season and emerging as a shut down defender. His defense continued to improve this season, although the more drastic change in George’s game has been his growth into a go-to scorer. With his ridiculous size and unlimited shooting range, it only seemed a matter of time before PG became offensive dynamite; he certainly did this season. In a season that saw him win the Most Improved Player Award and earn his first All-Star selection, George scored over 17 points per game (and also rounded out the rest of his game– he finished with almost eight boards and over four dimes per game) for the Pacers. Nonetheless, he has been even better since the playoffs started.
One of he most visible changes in George’s game is that he is developing into a freethrow machine who takes it to the basket on a consistent basis. When George hasn’t been throwing down monster jams on his drives, he has been getting to the freethrow line this postseason at a rate of about seven freebies per game. While his long range shot looked a bit shaky throughout the first two rounds against Atlanta and New York, George was a defensive demon, a constant presence on the glass, and still the focal point of Indiana’s offense, using his charity stripe visits to help him get to about 19 points per contest. All told, PG had seven 20 point games in the first two rounds, one triple double, and an 18-14-7 performance in a win against New York.
He’s been even better against King James and the Heat. In game one, George played 47 minutes, poured in 27 points, played stiff defense on Lebron, and, despite his one gaffe at the end that allowed Lebron to win the game for Miami, played about as well as anybody could have dreamed. The Pacers came back, winning two out of the next three. With the series tied 2-2 going into game five, George and Bron both came to play. James got the better of George, dropping 30 and taking over late to close out a 90-79 Heat win despite a 27-11 performance from PG. The struggle continued last night in game six and this time it was George who out-dueled Lebron, scoring on drives and on big threes and eventually leading the Pacers to a surprisingly one-sided win.
The series will be decided on Monday night in what has to be the most anticipated game of the playoffs so far. Lebron and George will go head to head once again–the NBA’s best player against the league’s newest star. Whether or not the Pacers can make like Burger King soft serve and beat the Heat, Paul George deserves serious props for his play this series. He has almost limitless potential, and he’s already scary good.