When Danny Granger’s season was finally shut down as he underwent surgery on a left knee that kept him out of the Pacers lineup for much of the season, Paul George’s comments to the media spoke volumes.
“We know,” George said, “we can win without Danny in the lineup.”
George was right. And he’s a big reason.
The Pacers are in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2004 as they advanced past Atlanta and the Knicks in the opening two rounds thanks in great part to the emergence of George not only as a top-end defensive presence but for his offensive skills as well.
When the Heat took on the Pacers in the east semifinals last year, the 6-9 George was looked upon as one of the up-and-coming players in the NBA.
Today, George has most definitely arrived upon the scene and will be front-and-center when the Pacers visit Miami for Game 1 of the conference finals on Wednesday night.
“George is a different player than last year. He’s their All-Star, featured player,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday.
“He has a versatility that is unique. He can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Young players oftentimes can make big strides, and that is what he has done the past three years. He’s a two-way player who is unique with his size and his skill set.’’
George is now in his third season after being the 10th overall pick in 2010 from Fresno State.
The Pacers have counted on his stout defense since he arrived in Indianapolis and have seen him blossom offensively, as well.
As a rookie, George averaged 7.8 points in 21 minutes a game. In 2011-12, George’s minutes increased as did his offensive output as he averaged 12.1 points in 30 minutes a game.
This season , without Granger as Indiana’s top offensive option, George thrived as he led the Pacers with 17.4 points and played nearly 38 minutes a night. George was named the NBA’s most-improved player and was second team all-defense.
In the playoffs, George has averaged just more than 19 points.
“We’ve grown a lot,”’ George said when reflecting on last year’s Pacers team. “Everyone has taken on a larger role. To do that without our leading scorer and rebounder from last year is pretty unbelievable.”
George’s strength is his defense, and he was given the task of slowing down Carmelo Anthony in Round 2.
Although Anthony got his points — he had 39 in the Knicks’ Game 6 loss — George didn’t back down. Anthony, the NBA’s leading scorer in the regular season, was held to four points in the fourth quarter as the Pacers closed the series out.
In this round, George will be getting an even bigger defensive assignment — LeBron James.
“[James] is the best offensive player in the world,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said Monday. “Paul just has to do the best he can like he did on Carmelo. Carmelo went off a few times.
“LeBron is going to have some moments where he goes off. [George] needs to try and compete and do the best he can without fouling James. We do not want to put these guys at the free-throw line.”
During the regular season, Indiana won two of the three against Miami with James averaging 21 points on 51 percent shooting. In the third game on March 10 at AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami switched things up and put James on Lance Stephenson and Dwyane Wade on George.
George struggled in that game by scoring 10 points — with five turnovers — in Miami’s 105-91 win.
“He’s more confident than he was last year,” James said. “There is opportunity [for him], and that’s what our league is about. There are a lot of guys with talent, but then there’s one where a coach believes in him and teammates start to believe and the player starts to believe in himself.
“I think that’s what it is. Paul George’s confidence is at an all-time high. When you make an All-Star Game and people start to talk about you as an up-and-coming superstar, well, he’s doing it every night. He’s a real good player. I’m looking forward to the matchup.”
Said George on guarding James: "It’ll be fun. I always embrace challenges. I look forward to the challenge.”