For the final five seconds of regulation of Wednesday night's Knicks-Pacers tilt at Madison Square Garden, the difference between Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was as thin as Iman Shumpert's finger.
Shumpert brushed George's elbow on a three-pointer with the Knicks up three. George made all three free throws, and Anthony couldn't make his shot on the other end. Thus, the game went to overtime, where George took advantage by scoring nine points in a 103-96 win.
Paul George is the Best Forward in the East (Non-LeBron Division)
Honestly, this performance was nowhere near vintage 2013-14 Paul George. People will look at the 35 points—nine coming in the overtime—and think of this as perhaps George's best game of the season. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, George struggled with his scoring in regulation, being held mostly in check by the tough defense of Shumpert. Toward the end of regulation he had a very un-George-like 22 points on 21 shots. Even his nine-point overtime flourish came at the expense of a Knicks team that had already checked out. This might not have been one of the six best games George has played already in 2013-14.
And that, more than anything, shows his greatness—the fact that his best scoring night of the season wasn't one of his best all-around performances.
George ranks fifth in the NBA in scoring, at 24.4 points per game, according to NBA.com, yet it is his defense which truly puts him among the best in the game. Coming into Wednesday's game, George ranked second in the league with 0.8 defensive win shares, according to Basketball Reference. And this isn't an isolated incident: George led the league last year with 6.3 defensive win shares. George was already an elite defensive player; he has simply expanded his dominance to the other side of the court. Even his opponent tonight, Anthony, noticed the maturity in George's offensive game:
Melo Has Everything Working Against Him at the Moment
Anthony is certainly a bigger name than George...but is he a better player at this point?
If the two were playing an individual sport, like tennis, then a case could be made that they're playing a similar brand of basketball. Just check out their per-36 numbers:
Not much difference there. But basketball is a team sport, and in the team setting, George has clearly been better this season.
The reasons for George's relative dominance of Melo is two-fold. The first reason is not Melo's fault at all: His teammate's are clearly inferior to George's. If anything, Melo has done an admirable job of making up for his teammates deficiencies by playing more minutes and spending more time in the paint in the absence of Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who is sidelined with a leg fracture.
The second reason, however, is all on Melo. George started out in this league by crafting himself into a defensive stopper, and then working on his offensive game. But Melo, for whatever reason—lack of talent, laziness, poor coaching early in his career—never developed into a consistent shutdown defender. And now he finds himself facing off against a rival forward who is not only six years younger, but who has developed the complete two-way game that has always eluded him.
Is There Anyone Left (North of Miami) to Challenge George and the Pacers?
It was true before the game, and it would have been true no matter the outcome: The Indiana Pacers are far better than the New York Knicks at the moment. Given the struggles of the Brooklyn Nets, it would seem that the only team standing between the Pacers and an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Miami Heat is the only team to beat Indy this season: the Chicago Bulls.
As for Melo and the Knicks, there were several encouraging signs to come out of this game. They added the Pacers to their ever-growing list of "good teams we should have beaten," just below Chicago and Houston. Sooner or later, some of these close losses will turn into close wins. And with the Nets also struggling, the Atlantic Division is still there for the taking.
In the end, not much has changed in the perception of these two teams: Indiana was a clear-cut contender coming into the year, and the Knicks were on the periphery of contention. The only change is in the perception of each team's star player. Last year, Anthony was clearly the second-best forward in the conference. But George has clearly wrestled that title from his hands; he is now the only forward under LeBron, and his Pacers are the clear challengers to LeBron's Heat.