When the Indiana Pacers announced in October that Danny Granger would be out indefinitely, an extended playoff run seemed highly unlikely. The team had enough trouble as it was against a short-handed Miami Heat team in last year's postseason, and Indiana figured to be a middle-of-the-road team with its star forward on the shelf.
Five months later, with the emerging Paul George leading the charge, the Pacers now have a legitimate shot at the coveted Larry O'Brien Trophy.
There's clearly something special about the 6'8", 210-pound forward, and George's unique abilities on the court have transformed Indiana from an Eastern Conference also-ran to a true contender.
He hasn't done it alone, of course. Power forward David West has had something of a career resurgence this year (17.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG), and center Roy Hibbert has shaken off a dreadful start to become a dominant force in the middle (10.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.7 BPG).
But there's no question that George is the leader of the Pacers, and he'll be the primary reason for the team's success (or lack thereof) for the foreseeable future.
George isn't like most professional athletes who are on the cusp of greatness. There aren't many All-Stars who spend their down time playing dodgeball with fans, nor are there many who write letters to each member of their organization to thank them for their support.
By all accounts, he was the consummate team player even when things weren't going so well early in the season. After a lackluster November (14.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG), George quickly adjusted to his new role as Indiana's alpha dog, and his numbers improved across the board. In each of the last four months, George has averaged at least 16.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
Not coincidentally, the Pacers haven't had a losing month in that stretch, and with the postseason right around the corner, Indiana has won 14 of their last 19 games.
"It's really an indication of working hard," said George in an interview with Lang Greene of HoopsWorld. "I was given an opportunity and was able to make the most of it."
Last month, on the league's brightest stage, George more than held his own in the All-Star Game, scoring 17 points in 20 minutes off of the bench.
Performances such as that only tease at George's potential. Yet youth and inexperience never lie, and the 22-year-old forward can be fantastic one night (25 points in 27 minutes against the Orlando Magic on Mar. 8) and maddening the next (2-for-11, 10 points and five turnovers against Miami on Mar. 10).
The one constant, however, is his defense, and George is one of the keys of a swarming Indiana unit that has held opponents to 89.7 points per game this year. The Pacers boast a league-low Defensive Rating of 99.0, and opposing teams have shot just 41.6 percent against them this season. Three Pacers' starters—George, Hibbert and West—are among the top six in the NBA in Defensive Rating.
While Indiana's strength lies in their ability to play as a cohesive unit, they'll only go as far as George can take them. According to 82games.com, the Pacers are 9.6 points per 100 possessions better with George on the floor.
Many who have been in George's position before have done their best to avoid the spotlight, but the soon-to-be superstar knows that his team is poised to do great things. "We have a real legitimate shot of making a pretty long run this year," said George.
How long that run will be may ultimately depend on the health of Granger and the consistency of Indiana's supporting cast. But there definitely won't be much of a run to speak of if George isn't playing at an All-Star level.
And if the third-year forward can somehow lead the Pacers to an upset of the mighty Heat, that would be something special indeed.