The two elite Eastern Conference squads will be duking it out for the No. 1 postseason seed all throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and that won't change in the future, assuming all the major pieces stay in place. Then they may run into each other in the playoffs, as they did in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
Someone will have to slow down the MVP if the Pacers are to advance so deep into the playoffs that they can take on the representative from the West.
Here's looking at you, Paul George.
The swingman used the 2012-13 season to emerge as one of the league's true rising stars, making the All-Star team, pacing the Pacers in plenty of statistical categories and even earning the admiration of LeBron during that ECF series.
But he still struggled to stop Miami's best player, as you can tell from these splits, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
That has to change.
If the Pacers want to find ultimate success, they'll need their best player to successfully slow down the other team's top scorer. Notice I said "slow down," not "shut down." Actually eliminating LeBron's impact is an impossible task, the likes of which NBA defenders are tortured with in a parallel universe where they're placed next to Sisyphus and Tantalus upon retirement.
Fortunately, slowing down James actually is possible, even if few individual defenders have managed to do it.
Don't Give Up Deep Post Position
Throughout the tough Indiana-Miami series, James absolutely manhandled George in the post. It was far too easy for the Heat forward to establish himself in the paint, take a couple of dribbles and then figure out how he was going to embarrass the defense on this particular possession.
James has recently become a phenomenal post-up player.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he scored 0.89 points per possession in those situations during the 2012-13 season, a mark topped by only 43 qualified players throughout the Association.
It's the latest improvement in a career filled with them.
That might not look like a positive trend for LeBron, as his points per possession in the post each year have gone down. However, it's misleading because he's spent significantly more time working with his back to the basket.
There is still an overall improvement, and that's been readily apparent when watching the Heat.
Just as important is George's portion of the graph.
After a small-sample-size fluke during his rookie season, the swingman struggled in the post during 2011-12 and improved greatly in 2012-13. Now he'll have to continue that trend in his quest for elite status.
The key against LeBron is to keep him from establishing deep post position. If the bigger forward gets the ball well into the paint, George may as well give up, because James can overpower him or use his nifty spin to the left.
At the start of this play, George is in good position. Almost.
Reminder: He's playing LeBron.
Even though the MVP doesn't seem like a threat right now, the Indiana forward can't afford to be relaxing. He should be in guarding position, prepared to keep LeBron from establishing better position.
While George's placement on the court is perfect, that's the only part of his game that looks right at the moment.
Because George is standing up straight, LeBron is able to slide right under him and put himself in better position.
Now No. 24 is no longer between his man and the basket. It's a dangerous situation to be in with LeBron.
The Heat, whose ball movement is utterly fantastic, swing the rock around the perimeter and quickly hit James with an on-target entry pass. From here, there's really nothing George can do.
He's isolated against LeBron in the post with no help immediately forthcoming.
As you might have guessed, two points is the easy result.
The play stands in stark contrast to this next one, which comes later in the Eastern Conference Finals and in a much different situation.
This time, LeBron has the ball in his hands to start the play. But he's been torturing George with post moves throughout the game and series, so PG still has to consciously keep him from getting too deep into the interior of the Indiana defense.
Right off the bat, this is better.
George could easily give LeBron space, but the intensity is perfect. He's guarding his man well outside his range, and he knows that he's one of the few players with the foot speed and physicality to match up with LeBron during the inevitable drive to the rim.
LeBron uses a screen and starts preparing to back down George. But he has to start from all the way out near the three-point arc.
It's not a comfortable situation for the Miami stud.
George refuses to give any ground.
As you can probably tell by the angle at which LeBron appears, he's using some hard back-down dribbles. Everything James has is going into the effort to physically overpower George, and it isn't working because the Indiana star is prepared for it.
Instead of getting closer to the basket, LeBron resigns himself to a spin move to the right, and he lofts up a jump hook that clangs off the iron.
It was only one play, but it's rather indicative of how to guard the NBA's best player in the post. Keep him out of the paint. Frustrate him by refusing to let him establish deep position, whether he's working off the ball or with the rock in his hands.
That's no easy task, and it's a physically tiring one.
But it's ultimately necessary.
Gamble Like You're in Vegas
That play didn't turn out very well for George and the rest of the Pacers. He admittedly overpursued and allowed LeBron to attempt an easy game-winning layup while he tried desperately to catch up.
But it's still the exact mentality that I want George to have when he's matched up against the MVP.
There's one key to this play that you might have overlooked: Roy Hibbert's presence and the effect that it has on LeBron. Let me remind you where the seven-footer is during this game-winner.
And let's not forget that Hibbert is a guy who can do this.
Frank Vogel isn't going to make the mistake of leaving his rim-protecting center on the bench again during a crucial situation. More often than not, the Georgetown product will be functioning as a security blanket for George, ensuring that he can gamble without as much fear of LeBron torturing him with drives to the rack.
Think about what happens when you're playing blackjack in Las Vegas.
You're going to be awfully hesitant to hit on a 16 for fear of going over 21 and losing whatever you gambled, but what if you could see the dealer's hand? What if you knew that he or she was already at 19, and failing to take the risk would result in certain defeat?
Wouldn't you hit then?
That's the situation that George finds himself in when he's guarding LeBron.
He knows that the MVP is so dominant that he may as well be sitting on a 19 or 20. It's not that he can afford to take risks, but rather that he must take them.
George needs to jump passing lanes, attempt to swipe the ball away from LeBron whenever his handles get a bit loose and try overpursuing to force him away from the basket.
Just when Hibbert is in the game next time.
"What? Huh? You want George to go into a battle against the best player in basketball without preparing? Are you out of your mind?"
I can hear your questions already. At first glance, that piece of advice does seem nonsensical, so they're understandable inquiries.
But how exactly do you game-plan for LeBron?
It's not like George can sit down and tell himself that he's going to stop every single part of LeBron's offensive game. It's filled with just about every type of basketball play you can imagine: great passes, thunderous dunks, finesse moves in the post, jumpers that find nothing but net and more.
You can't take away everything. That's just an impossibility.
George has to recognize that and adopt the proper mentality. His plan for slowing down LeBron must be fluid, able to constantly change depending on the strengths of the MVP's game that given night.
If LeBron is dominating in the post, adjust. Do everything that you can to keep him from establishing any sort of position.
If he's hitting all his jumpers, play tighter. Gamble more with your tight positioning and allow the rest of the stellar Indiana defense to corral him when he drives around you to the rim.
If he's distributing the ball with greater frequency than normal, sag off and play the passing lanes until he punishes you with jumpers.
It's all about adapting, and that makes pregame planning awfully difficult.
Guarding LeBron has given a myriad of magnificent defenders nightmares. It's a nearly impossible task, but George should be up for the challenge as he continues developing into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
It certainly won't be easy.
He has to constantly work hard, both on the mental and physical aspect of his point-stopping play.
Personally, I can't wait to see what happens the next time these two square off. I won't be at all surprised when George at least frustrates his opponent.