Loss to Heat fuels George, Pacers' surge

Loss to Heat fuels George, Pacers' surge
November 22, 2013, 7:00 pm

BOSTON — Even now months after the fact, Paul George can't let it go.

The painful memories of Indiana's Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last June still haunt him.

The missed jumpers.

The blown defensive assignments.

Miami's 99-76 drubbing.

But as his thoughts shift towards tonight's game against Boston, George grins upon reflection on that still-painful memory.

"I'm a different player because of that," George told CSNNE.com. "And we're a different team; a better team."

Indiana (10-1) has had the rest of the Eastern Conference in catchup-mode all season, which includes them opening with a franchise-record nine straight wins.

It doesn't take too long to see that losing to the Heat in the Conference finals has been the driving force behind the Pacers' play and George's emergence as one of the top players in the NBA.

"That was a painful experience, getting that close," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, a former video coordinator for the Celtics. "But also a confidence-boosting experience, knowing we can play with the champs. We're close to achieving that level of success."

Great defense, a strong bench are keys.

But their dreams of an NBA title won't happen without George leading the way.

He understands that responsibility, which is why he spent the offseason working to ensure the Game 7 disappearing act he pulled last June won't happen again.

As fans began to digest the Pacers' elimination, there were some who suggested George was too "buddy-buddy" with Miami's LeBron James, pointing to the handshake exchanged between the two in Game 2 when George blew past James with a cross-over dribble, then dunked emphatically on Chris Andersen.

George admits that he and James are friendly off the court.

"Of course guys are going to be friends in the league, " George said. "It's a fraternity. I got friends in the league that I pull for, hope the best for them. But when we step on the floor ... I'm trying to kill you on the court. I don't care who you are. That's my attitude, and I think I prove that every night."

Just a year ago, he was making a run towards the league's most improved player.

Today?

He is one of the leading candidates for the NBA's MVP award, averaging 24.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

And that doesn't even factor in what he brings to the floor defensively.

"I'm just trying to be as complete a player as possible for this team," George said. "Doing whatever I have to do to make us better, lead this team to a championship."

Ah yes, there's that title talk again.

Shortly after the season ended, George began physically prepping his body for this upcoming season.

George knows all too well what happened in Indiana's Game 7 loss to Miami had nothing to do with his friendship with James or anything like that.

"I was gassed," he said. "I had nothing left. I was trying to give my best effort, but I just didn't have it. I don't ever want to be like that again."

So he spent the bulk of this summer strengthening his core and conditioning his body to be better able to handle a long playoff run. He spent three or four days a week running Runyan Canyon near Los Angeles with former Boston College star and Oklahoma City guard Reggie Jackson.

"I did that because I wanted to build my legs," George said. "Make sure I wasn't tired late in games and when my team needed me. That was one of the reasons."

He has been everything the Pacers have needed this season, delivering in a variety of ways.

George's improvement does not come as a surprise to Celtics assistant Walter McCarty, a former Pacers assistant.

"He's a guy that really wants it," McCarty said. "He's one of those kids that's always willing to learn and just find out out as much as possible about anything. He just wants to be a great player."

Greatness in the NBA isn't always defined by how well you play in games, but more so how you perform in the game's most critical moments.

In Indiana's overtime win at New York, George had a game-high 35 points which included a trio of free throws to tie the game at 5.2 seconds to play before Indiana eventually went on to get the 103-96 victory.

"Last year, I might have deferred right there and tried to get the ball to another teammate," George admitted. "But these guys expect me to take that shot, to make that play. And I'm doing all I can to make sure that I can make those plays, to get us a championship."

McCarty remembers George in that role, but knew it had nothing to do with his ability and everything to do with him doing what he had to do to get on the floor.

"We had guys, we had Mike Dunleavy (Jr.), we had Danny Granger, you had Roy (Hibbert) starting to develop into his own down on the post," said McCarty who was a Pacers assistant during the 2010-2011 season. "So we didn't need him offensively. We needed him defensively. We had no one who could do that. He took that role and it really helped him grow that much as a player."

Said George: I've always had an ability to make and create shots. I had the ability to make tough shots, but it just took time. But as the years went on, I wanted more from myself. And defense wasn't getting me into the elite class; I had to get some buckets. I really wanted to come out as a complete player."

Mission accomplished, young fella.

And so as much as George is locked into helping the Pacers continue their winning ways, he knows tonight's game is just another step along the journey to, what are you aiming for again Paul?

"A championship," he says, grinning. "That's what we're all in this for, to do what we have to do in order to win it all."

And while the Pacers have a relatively young core, George isn't trying to hear talk about them having other opportunities after this season.

"You hear it all the time, teams get so close and guys get so close and teams break up and never get that opportunity again," George said. "Now more than ever, I'm striving to get a championship."