The Portland Trail Blazers had every excuse to shrink from the moment.
Facing off against the league's best team and situated in the crosshairs of Paul George, the NBA's most rapidly ascending superstar, nobody would have been all that surprised if Portland had crumbled. After all, the Blazers won just 33 games a year ago, and their soft schedule was really just hiding a mediocre team off to a hot start.
To the surprise of many, the Trail Blazers didn't back down, not even when George morphed into some crazy combination of Reggie Miller and Mr. Fantastic down the stretch.
Portland held on against the Indiana Pacers, notching a 106-102 victory, despite George's career-high 43-point onslaught. The win went a long way toward legitimizing the Blazers' status as an elite team, but George was so dominant, so frighteningly driven in his effort to drag an exhausted team to victory that even in a losing effort, his declaration to the league might have been even more significant than Portland's.
Basically, the Blazers announced that they were a team on solid ground. George, though, practically walked on water.
Loud and Clear
The Blazers won the game, which means they get first priority here.
Appropriately, they're also first in the Western Conference, which is a position most expected them to relinquish after tonight.
LaMarcus Aldridge led Portland with 28 points and 10 rebounds on 11-of-19 shooting, and Damian Lillard chipped in 26 of his own. Both of the Blazers' stars were integral down the stretch, but we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.
For a while there, it looked like Indiana was going to be in total control of this one:
It's never a good idea to allow the Pacers to dictate the terms of engagement, but in the early going, Indiana was forcing the Blazers to do exactly what it wanted.
Despite an ominous start in terms of both pace and shot selection, the Blazers weathered the storm. Portland got decent play from its improved bench, fought to force turnovers from a predictably sloppy Pacers team and managed to head into halftime trailing by just a single point.
All things considered, the first half had gone pretty well for Portland.
Indiana tried to blitz the untested Blazers in the third, building an eight-point lead with 5:33 remaining in the period. But fatigue kicked in for the Pacers as the fourth quarter neared, and Portland seized the opportunity to prey on a tired opponent.
Where they got the energy is a mystery, as the Blazers were playing their second game in two days just as the Pacers were.
Whatever the source of their late push, the Trail Blazers started beating the Pacers to loose balls, hitting jumpers against a beleaguered defense (Hey there, Mo Williams!) and, stunningly, pulling away.
Joel Freeland's slam (the result of the Blazers winning a scrum for a 50-50 ball) gave Portland a seven-point lead with seven minutes to play.
From there, things got a little crazy. Roy Hibbert stood tall in the lane, but Aldridge was able to arc shots over the hulking big man. George went absolutely insane (more on that later) down the stretch, but Lillard did just enough to keep Portland's lead alive on the other end.
Ultimately, the Trail Blazers won what might have been the best game of the regular season so far. This was a contest that pitted two excellent teams against one another in a playoff atmosphere. We knew Indiana was for real, but based on everything we saw from Portland, it's safe to finally concede that it, too, is unequivocally good.
The Blazers announced their legitimacy with a high-quality win over a great opponent. It's as simple as that.
Louder and Clearer
Under any circumstances, George's 43 points would have warranted a mention. That's an awful lot of production for a 23-year-old player on the second night of a back-to-back set.
But the way George asserted himself down the stretch, firing off cold-blooded triples that his team desperately needed without the slightest reservation, was truly eye-opening. It's no great leap to say George is a rising star; everybody has agreed on that point since he went toe to toe with LeBron James in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.
Now, it seems like we've undersold George by describing him as a mere "star." The way he carried himself—and nearly carried his team to victory—against Portland marked him as a full-on, no-questions-asked superstar.
He nailed seven threes on the night, including a whopping five in the final 2:56. As the rest of the Pacers wilted, George blossomed, showing an unmistakable confidence and a phenomenal understanding of the situation.
He knew his team was done. He knew they'd given all they could. But he tapped into a special reserve tank that only a select few players have. And he almost had enough gas left to win the game.
There are no more questions about Paul George's place among the NBA's elite. Not after he completely dominated Nicolas Batum on defense, holding him to just two field goals in 36 minutes. Not after he almost single-handedly resurrected a spent Pacers team.
And not after he carried himself with the unmistakable aura of superstardom.
Where Do We Go From Here?
With less than a quarter of the season in the books, it's dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from a single game. Things can always change.
There's a sense of permanence to the Blazers now, though. They've vanquished the team that many believed to be the league's best, and they did it by playing well on both ends. Portland might not be a surefire championship threat, but they're certainly no fluke.
As for George, we can now comfortably lump him into that crowded collection of superstars who occupy the pedestal just beneath James. He belongs next to Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. He's earned his spot there.
Ultimately, two things happened when the Blazers defeated the Pacers: Portland arrived, and Paul George ascended.