You were good, Paul George. Just not quite good enough.
As George raced to the 3-point line to close out on LeBron James, who was receiving an inbounds pass with two seconds on the clock, there was an overwhelming sense that viewers had seen this situation before. George and the Pacers led the Heat by one point in overtime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Twenty years of watching isolation-heavy basketball in end-of-clock situations has conditioned defenders like George to expect his man to attempt a statuesque, contested fade-away jump shot at the buzzer. So as James gathered the pass, George homed in on James’ right hip, hoping to crowd James’ shooting hand for the inevitable 20-footer.
What James did next illustrated why he is not merely the best player in the world, but is remaking the way the game is played. Rather than settling for a tough jumper, James spun past George, took two easy strides and flipped in the game-winning layup as time expired. It looked effortless, as do most of the things James does on a court, but even more so because fans have become so used to seeing stars do it the hard way.
Think about it: Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Dirk Nowitzki. Paul Pierce. NBA stars have made such a habit of holding the ball, watching the clock tick down and unleashing a low-percentage shot at the last moment that an inordinate number of NBA head coaches do not even bother to draw up plays for end-game situations anymore. Stashing two players in the corners and another player on each block usually suffices, while the so-called star operates at the top of the key.
James has been guilty of that approach in his career, to be sure, but that is not really his nature. He plays for the good shot. Sometimes that means passing the ball, which attracts criticism from folks who want to see nothing but hero-ball in the clutch. But those folks are losing the argument. The clearest evidence of that was the guy vying for attention with James on Wednesday.
If George had been born 10 years earlier, he might have been a completely different player. His model could have been Scottie Pippen, but think of how many true two-way wing players there were then. It’s harder than it seems like it should be, right? There are a lot of Glen Rice and Bryon Russell types, guys who were forced to focus on the one premier part of their games, and select few Mitch Richmonds. Maybe George would have transcended that thinking anyway. Or maybe he would have been tossed in a heap with other longish ‘tweeners who come into the league doing many things passably well, but few things great, and headed off to play in Europe after muddling around for five or six seasons.
(By the way, George was born in 1990. Good grief.)
James has changed the conversation. Now a 6-foot-8 stringbean out of Fresno State with no clear position is not a challenge for a coach, but an opportunity. George has gotten better in each of his three years in the NBA, and the bulk of the credit for any such improvement always goes to the player. But Frank Vogel and the Pacers were chasing a different paradigm. They were not content to label Danny Granger the scorer and George the stopper, because James forced people to thing bigger.
Now, thanks to James’ influence, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, widely regarded as the league’s two best scorers, are constantly on a quest to expand their games beyond piling up buckets — well, Durant is, anyway. The change is not limited to perimeter forwards, either. Players at every position are being evaluated in regard to their defense and all-around potential.
Victor Oladipo might be a top-five pick off nothing more than his defensive prowess and the hope that he might be able to develop a consistent outside shot. Marc Gasol, a former second-round pick, barely averaged 14 points per game this year, and he has come to be considered the best center in the game. Once upon a time, Gasol and George might have been relegated to role players. Thanks to James, knowledgeable fans now recognize brilliance comes in more than high scoring totals.
For most of the second half on Wednesday, George was a pretty good copy of James. He hit an unbelievable, last-gasp 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, and his three free throws set the stage for James’ final play. But while George was infinity plus infinity, James was infinity times infinity. A poor man’s LeBron is not such a bad thing, except when the real deal happens to be on the court.
The final play was so fitting that way. Trained by a lifetime of watching the NBA to expect one type of shot, George fell victim to the type of play that has assisted in his own rise. Despise James if you wish, but largely because of him, smart basketball is back in vogue. Next time, George might actually see it coming.