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In one of Larry Bird's last acts as Pacers president, he called the fourth-best player on the team to talk about unseating the single best player in the world. It was the middle of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, and small forward Paul George was defending Heat counter-part LeBron James, clinging to his waistband by a thin black thread. "He told me to be patient," George recalls. "He told me I would grow and develop and pick things up as a result of what I was experiencing." Bird knows better than anybody that an adversary can both embarrass and inspire. He realized that the Pacers were probably going to lose. He also recognized that George was not going to be their fourth-best player for long.
Over the next two weeks Indiana will inflict inordinate punishment on James and the Heat as the teams meet again in the conference finals. The Pacers' system, which they describe as "smash-mouth," is almost as rugged as the Colts' 3--4. They sometimes require at least one set of shoulder pads to practice it. "If you play these guys," said former Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, "you've got to be ready to take a bloody nose." Unlike the helter-skelter schemes popularized by the Bulls and Celtics, the Pacers' defensive approach is straightforward. They disdain double teams. They rarely rotate. They hesitate to help. They simply ask their massive perimeter players to smother whoever is in front of them—"Suffocate," clarifies center Roy Hibbert—and fight through pick-setters as if they're tackling dummies. Don't get screened is an organizational mantra. Indiana allowed the NBA's lowest opposing field goal percentage (42.0%), including lowest at the three-point line (32.7%) and lowest at the rim (32.1%), where Hibbert stands sentry like a 7'2" bouncer. "The TV ratings for this series are horrible," Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw told a few players during the Eastern Conference semis against the Knicks, which the underdog Pacers closed out in six games last Saturday. "People turn it off after the first quarter." The players beamed.
Miami has run this gantlet before, albeit with bruises, emerging from a 2--1 deficit in last year's semis to prevail in six. James scored 98 points in the last three games, Dwyane Wade 99, and the rosters haven't changed much since then. One player, however, has been transformed, and he is the lone reason to believe the outcome can also be different. After the Pacers fell to the Heat, Bird retired to Florida and George flew home to Los Angeles, where he watched videos of the games in agent Aaron Mintz's office at CAA. Two days later George ducked into the office again and asked for the remote. "He was embarrassed with the way those guys took over and he didn't," Shaw says. "He saw the room for growth." George put together a mental checklist of qualities he needed to enhance: ballhandling, shooting, post-ups and strength. "I'm going to return a new player," he told Indiana coach Frank Vogel.
On Saturday, after the Pacers advanced to the Eastern finals for the first time since 2004, they held a press conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse featuring all five starters—even shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who momentarily forgot his pants in the locker room. The democratic tableau furthered the quaint notion that Indiana has no headliners, in contrast to the megawatt Heat, and it used to ring true. But the 23-year-old George is now an All-Star and the Most Improved Player of the year, perhaps the premier perimeter defender in the NBA and maybe the league's hardest worker. He led the Pacers in minutes (37.6 per game), points (17.4) and steals (1.8) this season. He leads them in assists and ranks second in rebounds this postseason. He guards the opposition's top wing without reinforcements, and through the first 11 playoff games, spot-up shooters were a woeful 9 of 37 against him, according to Synergy Sports. No one halts James, but George has the best chance to irritate him.
"A lot of guys get steals but can't contain," says Vogel. "And a lot of guys keep you in front but aren't long enough to get the ball. He does both." PG, a nickname that makes him sound as innocent as a rom-com, is 6'9" with Durantesque arms and a vertical leap that enabled him to fly over Hibbert at the Slam Dunk Contest last year. Even when they beat George to the basket, Carmelo Anthony and others tend to peek behind their backs, as if they're worried he might hop over their heads, too. You can't blame them for straining to keep track of George. He comes out of nowhere.
His parents are named Paul and Paulette, so their only son had to be another Paul. Like Pacers immortal Reggie Miller, he grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and like Miller, he learned basketball from an older sister. Teiosha George starred at Palmdale High and Paul tagged along to her practices, shooting on a side basket. When Teiosha earned a scholarship to Pepper-dine, Paul spent summers living with her on the campus and working out at Firestone Fieldhouse. Miller, a Malibu resident, regularly showed up at the gym for extra jumpers. Paul quietly stared.
Palmdale is a desert town only an hour north of L.A., but for a basketball prospect, it seemed a remote outpost. George spent more time fishing with his father than preening for college recruiters. He played at the YMCA because he couldn't find a club team. Not until the summer before his senior year did he join an AAU program, Pump N' Run in L.A., but he was on the B team alongside a skinny guard named Klay Thompson, now a Warriors sharpshooter.
George had the build of a prodigy—already 6'8" with a wingspan of nearly seven feet—but he didn't act like one. "A lot of kids with that kind of talent only pay attention when you're talking about offense," says Tom Hegre, who coached George at Pete Knight High in Palmdale. "They just want to dribble and shoot. Paul actually paid more attention when I was talking about defense." George's favorite player was Kobe Bryant, but when his father bought him Lakers gear, he refused to wear it. The Clippers were his team.
He fashioned himself a scrapper, like his mother, who suffered a stroke and two blood clots in her brain when he was 10. George was outside at the time, shooting hoops in his driveway, when he heard the wail of the ambulance. "We all rushed to the hospital, and that night, the doctors declared her dead," George recalls. The pronouncement was premature. George slept in his mom's hospital room, and when she moved back home, he curled up in a blanket next to her bed. "It took me two years to be able to walk and talk and see again," says Paulette, who is still partially paralyzed on her left side. "He watched me fight." The family still calls him Man for the strength he demonstrated as a boy.
George didn't want to go far from home after high school, but Fresno State was the only major college nearby that offered him a scholarship. Though most coaches viewed George as a power forward, the Bulldogs, who were on probation, had just eight scholarships and a hole on the perimeter. "I told Paul, 'I'll play you at small forward,' " says former Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland, now an ESPNU analyst. " 'But you're going to have to learn to defend smaller guys.' "