The hype was not hollow. When Paul George got cooking in the first 30 games of the season, his play merited every piece of praise and demanded a re-evaluation of the East. He was hitting what coach Frank Vogel and George call his “Kobe move” jumper, that little in-and-out that George uses to create space near the elbow off of pick-and-rolls—and he was making them at a rate Dirk Nowitzki would envy. Rangy and fluid, George had found a way to get a shot any time he wanted, a skill that seemed to be the last missing piece for the defense-first Pacers. For months, George was leading what was clearly the best team in the East.

You’re on this site so you know the rumors, the lurid details of his late-season downfall. How he was humiliated online, and on the court his game went into a tail spin. He only hit 30 points once in the last six weeks of the season and that midrange jumper that was going to be the difference against the Heat vanished.

But as bad as it got … here we still are. The Pacers are back in the conference finals. In fits and starts the Pacers rediscovered their defensive mojo and George has regained his shooting stroke. The Pacers allowed 92.5 points per 100 possessions against Washington, a significant improvement from their league-leading mark in the regular season (94.9), and George is averaging 22 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists for the playoffs. There he is, right behind LeBron, Chris Paul and Durant in Playoff Win Shares.

What’s more George has gone ahead and provided an elegantly packaged storyline to explain how the Pacers reversed trends that nearly doomed them to the ignominy of a first round exit. Maybe you buy this fishing story, maybe you don’t. It seems cynical do dismiss it outright, and foolishly optimistic to buy the sports movie montage explanation for how Roy Hibbert got his groove back.

You can imagine the two sprinting on the beach, Rocky III style, as George helps Hibbert remember that he is in fact super duper tall.

Smash cut to them about to board a boat, Hibbert says “What are we doing out here anyways? We have a game to play! How’s fishing going to help us win a basketball game?” Paul just smiles knowingly, “Some things are more important than the game, old friend… like proving we aren’t beefing through the power of social media. Smile!”

It’s a story of Cliff Paul-level cheesiness, but something seems to be different with Indiana. Roy Hibbert isn’t rolling over like a mid-90s SUV and George is taking over games like a superstar (hey, is he a superstar again?).

But none of that matters, not with Miami on the horizon, closing in on a fourth straight Eastern Conference title like a three-mile wide sandstorm.

The Pacers became a team people cared about because everyone cares about the Heat. Fans don’t identify them as The Pacers so much as The Anti-Heat. They don’t play pretty, fluid basketball. They don’t have intricate schemes and lights out 3-point shooting. The Heat win surgically, the Pacers by blunt force trauma.

Indiana’s main function in the NBA landscape is to provide a foil to the Heat, to push James in ways no other team can … not necessarily to win.

The Pacers never seemed comfortable as favorites, a status that for the first time brought intense focus on the Pacers themselves rather than their effect on higher-profile competition like the Bulls, Knicks or Heat. Certainly no one sees them as favorites now. The optimism around Lance Stephenson has melted away and George Hill has plateaued somewhere south of his $8 million price tag.

It’s hard to imagine the Pacers actually scoring well enough to beat the Heat. They have to string so many passes together to take advantage of their size advantage, and they need to protect the ball. They need Lance Stephenson to keep it together against Wade, who loves to provoke him, and they need George Hill to do more than spot up. In other words they need a lot, and it’s unlikely they’ll get it all.

If there was even an invitation to buy in to their underdog status, this is it. And if history is a guide, this would be the time to buy Paul George stock again. LeBron is so universally respected and so highly regarded that just playing against him and not getting totally obliterated confers an elevated status to his opponent—look at Kawhi Leonard in last year’s Finals.

No one defends James as well as the combination of George and Hibbert. If he struggles some and George has a few good games, it will be enough to reclaim his status as one of the game’s second-tier players. Even in defeat, George can find a measure of redemption.

 

Follow me on Twitter @BeckleyMason


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