May 29, 2014, 1:56 AM EDT
LeBron James went around a Chris Bosh screen and threw a pass to Dwyane Wade. The Heat were using their three best players, a formula the Pacers have been unable to solve the last few years, dropping playoff series to Miami in 2012 and 2013 – and, maybe by the end of the week, 2014.
Suddenly, Paul George jumped the passing lane, stole the ball, surged toward the rim and separated himself from the Heat.
Erik Spoelstra stepped on the court and signaled timeout before George even dunked.
Miami, the back-to-back defending NBA champions, can keep stifling the Pacers. For now.
But George and crew won’t stop coming.
Indiana beat the Heat in Game 5 Wednesday, extending the Eastern Conference Finals at least to a Game 6 Friday and maybe a Game 7 Sunday. Even if the Pacers drop one of those, this is not over.
Lance Stephenson (23), George (24) and Roy Hibbert (27) are younger than Miami’s youngest starter – Mario Chalmers (28), and Chalmers is only 15 days younger than George Hill. The Pacers are too youthful, too hungry and too experienced to quit now.
Only Oklahoma City (in 2011 and 2012) has made back-to-back conference finals in the current 16-team playoff format with a lower average age than the Pacers, who have an average age of 26.4* in the last two postseasons.
*Weighted by minutes played in the playoffs, using a player’s age Feb. 1 of that season.
Of course, age alone doesn’t guarantee Indiana will eventually advance further. This team needs work – better chemistry, better ball-handling, better passing, better reserves and maybe better coaching.
But when George plays like he did tonight, it should be clear how high the ceiling and how wide the window are for Indiana.
At times, George looks like the NBA’s most athletic 3-and-D player. That role makes him extremely serviceable, good enough to help an otherwise talented Pacers team join the Eastern Conference elite. If his career unfolds as a 3-and-D+++ player who never taps his full potential, that would hardly be a tragedy.
Yet, there’s no reason George can’t become so much more.
With the Pacers’ season on the line, he scored 37 points, grabbed six rebounds and made six steals. He looked every bit a superstar, and if he hits that peak more often, he’ll be one rather than just imitate one from time to time.
Like George, the Pacers are still finding themselves. This is in no way a team on its last legs, even if its on its last legs in this series.
On the other hand, Indiana’s foil – Miami – is the third-oldest conference finalist in the last 15 years with an average age of 31.0. The Heat must either add youth to their supporting cast with little flexibility below the luxury-tax line, or they’ll eventually age out of contention.
There’s no guarantee Indiana will supplant them, but George has the potential to ensure it happens. He pulled the Pacers into a Game 6. He can pull them deeper into championship contention.
Game 5 was not a changing of the guard. The Heat still lead this series 3-2, and they’ll still likely win it.
But Paul George and the Pacers are making waves that could erode Miami’s beach soon. Maybe as soon as next season.
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