The 2013 NBA playoffs has provided it's fair share of thrills, but injuries to players such as Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have significantly damaged the allure. Fortunately, a budding rivalry between Paul George and LeBron James has helped to compensate for the lack of star power.
A rivalry that could shape the Eastern Conference for years to come.
George has made his leap during the 2012-13 season, being named an All-Star for the first time and winning the Most Improved Player of the Year award. George received further honors once the season concluded, as he was named to the All-NBA Third Team and the All-Defensive Second Team.
With season averages of 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, George officially removed the upside label and made his leap to elite—and he's only 23.
As for LeBron, it's been more of the same, as he won his fourth career MVP award and made his ninth consecutive All-Star Game appearance. For the first time since 2010, LeBron led his team to more than 60 wins and secured the best record in the NBA.
During the postseason, however, LeBron's greatness has been matched by George's emergence.
Respect is a powerful thing.
Thus far, LeBron is averaging 29.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steal per game. George is averaging 20.7 points, 6.3 assists and 2.7 rebounds on a slash line of .452/.462/.818.
No one will claim that George is on LeBron's level just yet, but the competition is a welcome sight—especially in a time with limited parity.
A Lack of Competition
If there's one truth that an unbiased fan cannot deny, it's that the Miami Heat significantly restructured the makeup of the NBA. By placing three of the league's premier players onto one team, the NBA lost a strong portion of it's competition.
On the surface, all that's left are aging superstars and players who are not yet close to their prime.
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, five of the NBA's top 10 scorers were 25 or younger. Additionally, four of those players were on teams seeded sixth or lower in their respective conferences.
Two of the top 10 scorers, Kyrie Irving and LaMarcus Aldridge, failed to make the postseason and four were teammates.
In 2009-10, the season prior to the formation of the Big Three, the top 10 scorers were all players on different teams. In fact, only four of the top 19 scorers had teammates that ranked in that same regard, thus displaying the parity in the NBA.
In 2012-13, however, 14 of the top 19 scorers have a teammate that earned the same distinction—nearly the exact opposite of what once was.
Since the Big Three came together in Miami, parity has been lost, specifically in the Eastern Conference. With Dwight Howard leaving the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics aging rapidly and Derrick Rose battling injuries for the Chicago Bulls, the competition is limited.
Paul George and the Indiana Pacers are changing that.
Derrick Rose is a dynamic playmaker with an elite defense to support him and a world-class head coach. Carmelo Anthony is a dominant scorer with an underrated coach and a quality supporting cast on both ends of the floor.
If any team has emerged as the Miami Heat's true postseason rival over the past two seasons, however, it's the rapidly improving Indiana Pacers.
This marks the second consecutive season in which the Pacers and Heat have met in the playoffs. More importantly, this is the second consecutive year in which Indiana has pushed Miami to the brink with a fearless and physical approach.
The difference in 2013 is that Indiana has a budding superstar leading the charge.
That's a term being thrown around with little regard for the true value of the word. With that being said, George has made the leap on both ends of the floor and has achieved something that few other players can lay claim to.
He's gone toe-to-toe with the best player in the world.
Rekindling the Postseason Flame
With Paul George and the Indiana Pacers emerging as the Miami Heat's new rivals, the competitive nature of the NBA appears to be in the process of restoration. While a majority of the NBA's best players are either past their prime or not yet entering that stage, Indiana offers hope.
With a fair blend of rising youth and veteran contributors, the Pacers have the look of a team that will be around for quite some time—something that puts them in line for multiple series against the Heat.
The matchup that everyone wants to see remains between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Just as Larry Bird had Julius Erving and Moses Malone before he could clash with Magic Johnson; however, everyone needs a road block.
George can be that player.
What's most intriguing about this budding rivalry is that the respect is mutual between both men. Not only did they trade a high five in the middle of a game, but they also appear to attack each other with vigor and an additional burst.
Respect can be pleasant, but it's also the ultimate fuel.
George struggled to shoot the ball during Indiana's first two series, looking like a fish out of water with the ball in his hands. Against LeBron, however, the butterflies appear to be gone and the aggression is taking charge.
At 23, George's best days are ahead of him—it appears as if we can say the same for this rivalry.