Sure, the Indiana Pacers have the chance to pull off what is considered an improbable upset and move on to the NBA Finals, but for George, this Eastern Conference Finals matchup is bigger than even that.
Against the LeBron-led Heat, George can remove the "up-and-coming" that currently precedes his "superstar" status. This is his time to show the league he's for real.
Not that George isn't already a star, because he is. But he has yet to have that defining course of events that puts an end to any and all debate.
George had a spectacular regular season that saw him earn his first All-Star selection and win the NBA's Most Improved Player award. And he's fresh off a semifinals performance that saw him frustrate the hell out of the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony.
That's not enough though. Or rather, it's not the same as going up against the best in the world and walking away with a feeling of immense satisfaction. But what must George do to make that happen?
Part I: Understanding What Constitutes Success
The Pacers want to creep their way past Miami and into the NBA Finals, George included. For him to prove his mettle and procure an unquestioned superstar label, though, it's not necessary.
Also unnecessary is completely stopping LeBron. Why? Because it's impossible.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel explained to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star:
(James) is the best offensive player in the world and Paul’s just got to do the best that he can, like he did on (New York’s) Carmelo (Anthony). Carmelo went off a couple of times, LeBron’s going to have some moments where he’s going to go off. (Paul’s) just got to try to compete, do the best he can and do it without fouling.
Like 'Melo—only more so—LeBron cannot be contained. You can only hope to make things difficult for him. Which is a notion George didn't seem to grasp last season.
In just his second season, George floundered in the second round against the Heat. LeBron picked apart the Pacers to the tune of 30 points and 6.2 assists on 50.4 percent shooting per game. George wasn't able to hinder LeBron the way he would have liked, and he let his defensive struggles carry over to the offensive end, where he averaged just 10 points on 36.5 percent shooting.
Sophomores who are pitted against LeBron don't stand a chance. In fact, most players aren't equipped to handle him. That's just how it is.
George's length and athletic ability give him a better shot at matching up against James than many other players. But that's not going to be enough to shut him down. Nothing is.
All George can hope to do is impede him, a la Jimmy Butler. If he does that, he'll have bridged whatever gap still exists between him and the rest of the Association's stars.
Part II: How Do You "Impede" LeBron?
You pray. And I'm only half-kidding.
LeBron has really expanded his offensive arsenal over the years. He's turned perceived weaknesses into strengths (his jump shot) and added elements to his game no one thought he could (obscene efficiency).
George's job is to recognize LeBron doesn't have a legitimate Achilles' heel. There isn't anything he can't do, hence the whole "unguardable" song we all sing. The task then becomes limiting him where he's absolutely dominant.
Immediately, it's his transition offense that comes to mind.
LeBron, and the Heat as a team, are scary good on the break. There's no other way to put it. When they're on the run, you're inevitably on a poster.
Preventing those transition opportunities comes down to protecting the ball and getting back on defense following jumpers.
Taking care of the ball is especially important for George. He's been a turnover machine during these playoffs, coughing the ball up 3.6 times a night.
Many of his ball-protection issues come down to attempting to make impossible passes, though some can be attributed to a less-than-tight handle. Now's the time for him to shore up both his court vision and precision off the dribble.
It's also the time to give LeBron the three-ball. You can't keep him out of the paint consistently—again, it's (here's that word again) impossible. If you smother him, he'll go around you. If you take a step or two back, he'll call for a screen and do the same thing.
What's George to do then? Give him even more space. I'm talking more than Coach Vogel would likely prefer.
Backing up to the point where screens are useless complicates LeBron's offensive sets. He can still opt to attack the paint, but if George is already back, he's dribbling into traffic (i.e. David West and Roy Hibbert). From there, he'll be more likely to defer—in which case George has done his job—or take a lower-percentage shot, which the Pacers will live with.
Should LeBron decide not to go through the theatrics that come with getting pummeled in the paint, he can simply step up and shoot the three. George is giving him that space; why not use it? He did shoot over 40 percent from downtown during the regular season, after all.
LeBron is connecting on just 32.1 percent of his deep balls for the postseason, though—a regrettable number by his standards. Affording him that open look from beyond the arc beats attempting to pick up his penetration.
This is also where George's length comes in handy. Not only is he quick enough to recover should LeBron opt to attack the paint, but as soon as The Chosen One enters his shooting motion, George has the arm span necessary to get a hand in his face.
Could LeBron begin to hit those threes? Of course; he's LeBron. If he does, George will have to alter his method of attack and relegate to hounding him, which isn't optimal, but it's something an agile athlete like Indy's young stud can attempt.
None of this is a blueprint for stopping LeBron, though. Once again, such a schematic doesn't exist.
Understanding his preferences (going right over left and things like that), however, assists in the ultimate goal: taking the ball out of his hands or forcing him into more difficult shots.
Part III: Maintain Composure
Even if LeBron goes bonkers on the offensive end, George cannot let it affect him.
The Pacers need George to be the offensive catalyst he's been during the postseason. He's putting up 19.1 points and five assists per game, and though his 40.4 percent field-goal clip is unfortunate, Indiana needs him to be active.
When LeBron goes off, that becomes more difficult. When he's defending you as well (as he'll do against George), it's even worse.
Is Paul George ready to be considered a superstar?
George can't let that get to him. Even if LeBron is on pace to drop 50 points or George himself can't buy a shot.
Unlike other superstars, George can be effective when he's not scoring. He can facilitate or act as a three-point-shooting decoy. He needs to remember that.
Nobody expects him to outplay LeBron. No one can. He can't forget that he himself is a star, though. He's not LeBron, but he's a star.
James said of George (via Wells):
Just the opportunity, the opportunity that presented itself with (leading scorer) Danny Granger going down. He had to step up. And I think he was ready for it. And he’s taken full advantage of it.
I think he’s one of the up-and-coming, new superstars that we have in our league. He’s a kid who loves to get better, loves to work on his game and it’s shown.
George has already garnered the respect and praise of LeBron; he's right there. All that's left to prove is his confidence won't be shaken, no matter how bright the lights or intimidating the opponent.
“It’ll be fun,” George said of facing LeBron (via Wells). “I always embrace challenges.”
So long as that doesn't suddenly change, George's standing in the league will.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.