Just How Bright Are the Futures of the Indiana Pacers and Paul George?
Not even by 23 points. Not even by getting beaten on the boards by a smaller team, whose bigs the Pacers had battered and bruised for a week-and-a-half. Not even with George slogging through one of his worst performances of these playoffs (seven points on 2-of-9 shooting, with three turnovers and six fouls) in the biggest game of his young basketball life.
For George and the Pacers, there are only lessons learned and experience gained from pushing the defending champions to the brink of elimination in a conference finals Game 7 that not too many saw coming.
The Pacers learned that they sport a frontcourt on whose size and skill they can successfully lean—even in a league where small ball is all the rage, even against a Heat team that's ridden that style to historic heights.
If not especially against that very Heat team. The fate of each game in this contentious series hung on the battles of the bigs. The Pacers won those battles more often than not, owning the boards through the first six tilts and totaling a 280-270 edge in points in the paint overall.
Those advantages almost single-handedly kept Indy in this series and were primarily the results of the stellar efforts put forth by Roy Hibbert and David West inside—especially Hibbert, who averaged 22.1 points (on 55.7 percent shooting) and 10.4 rebounds in 39.6 minutes per game against Miami.
This, after managing 12.3 points (on 47.5 percent shooting) and 11.5 rebounds in 32.4 minutes per game against the Heat during last year's Eastern Conference semifinals. No longer did Hibbert look or play like the lumbering ent who could barely keep on his feet, much less on the court, for extended stretches against Miami's smaller, quicker bigs.
Instead, Hibbert played with strength, poise, patience and confidence, knowing full well that Miami would have to work harder than ever just to slow him down. Thanks to his intense offseason training regimen and tireless work ethic, Hibbert has transformed himself into one of the NBA's foremost low-post threats and now sports the stamina to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble long enough to prove it.
As for David West, Hibbert's partner in crime in the paint, operating against Miami's thin front line was similarly fruitful. The punishing power forward punched in with 16.6 points and 8.9 boards in 38.5 minutes, including an admirable 11-point, 14-rebound showing in Game 6 whilst stricken with a respiratory infection.
West will be a free agent this summer. With the way he's played these last two years in Indy, he's surely due for a handsome payday, despite his advancing age (he turns 33 in August) and the lingering concerns about his surgically repaired knee.
For now, though, West insists that he wants to stick with the Pacers—a point he reiterated after the Game 7 defeat (via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated):
That’s something I’ll sit down and discuss. This is my group. These are my guys. I can’t see myself going anywhere else. We’re the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, one of the top four teams in the league, in my estimation...This group is a solid group. Gives me as an individual the best chance to accomplish the goals that I have left in terms of my future, and that’s competing at this stage of the game every single year from here on out.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
West's certainly justified in his optimism. If he stays in Indy, he'll be surrounded by a core group of guys whose youth and penchant for improvement points to a bright future. Hibbert is 26, George Hill just turned 27, Paul George is 23 and Lance Stephenson is a mere 22.
Throw in a (hopefully) healthy Danny Granger, who recently crossed into his 30s, and the Pacers could be even better next year. Granger's all-around skills as a scorer, rebounder and ball-handler would've come in quite handy in this series for an Indy squad whose bench sorely lacked anything in the way of offensive competency.
It's impossible to tell whether Granger's mere presence would've turned the series entirely, though the Pacers learned that the Heat are far from invincible and that they may well be vulnerable to comeuppance next year.
Especially if Indy can maintain its growth from fringe contender to force to be reckoned with.
Which is the Pacers most important objective of the offseason?
To be sure, that's far from a guarantee. Title contention in the NBA can be fleeting, if for no other reason that injuries so often dictate who survives and who doesn't from year to year. Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder this year, the Chicago Bulls the last two years or any number of prematurely anointed dynasties throughout the league's history.
That being said, the Pacers have every right to look back fondly on the recent past and gaze eagerly toward a promising tomorrow. With or without West, they should have ample financial flexibility with which to replenish their sorry reserves so that Frank Vogel won't have to lean so heavily on a starting five that ranked among the NBA's very best.
Even without any Earth-shattering additions, the ceiling for the Pacers is such that a finals appearance in 2014 is hardly out of reach, particularly if Paul George continues to shine.
George improved by leaps and bounds from Day 1 of the 2013-14 season, when he was just coming to terms with the responsibility of filling Danny Granger's shoes, to the present, wherein he's outgrown Granger's old kicks while going toe-to-toe with LeBron James.
If nothing else, the Pacers run to the brink of the finals served as George's pronouncement of superstardom. After playing his way into the 2013 All-Star Game in Houston, George lifted his team past the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks to within striking distance of the Heat's lofty throne. His numbers through the first six games of the Eastern Conference finals (21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and .500/.467/.806 shooting splits) point to bigger and better things.
Albeit with the caveat that he was all but scrubbed from the proceedings in Game 7 by the best basketball player on planet Earth.
But there's no shame in that for George. Next time the stakes are this high, he'll know what to do. He won't be startled by the moment. Rather, he'll emboldened by his failures like so many great ones before him.
As will be the case for the Pacers as a whole, now that they've taken their lumps and shown themselves to be far more than just a plucky underdog.
Though, really, there'd be no shame in that, either.
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