Paul George did what superstars do on Saturday. With his Indiana Pacers facing a win-or-go-home Game 7 situation, he scored a playoff career-high 30 points and did so efficiently, making 11-of-23 field-goal attempts and cashing in on seven of eight free throws.
He added 11 rebounds while he was at it.
This was a must-win for the Pacers in several ways. Not only does it keep their title hopes alive, but it may keep the organization from blowing things up this summer and sending head coach Frank Vogel packing. The Pacers got off to a rocky start in the series, eventually having to win both Games 6 and 7 to stay alive.
With their backs against the wall, George responded.
He finally had some help in Game 7. After going scoreless in two consecutive games, center Roy Hibbert turned in his best performance of the series with 13 points, seven boards and five blocks. Lance Stephenson was up to his usual do-it-all tricks again, adding 19 points and 14 rebounds.
These were the Pacers we got to know earlier in the season, a defensively dominant club capable of holding a team like the Hawks to just 80 points.
This was also the George we've come to know.
He didn't just carry the Pacers in Game 7, he carried them all series long. In seven postseason games, the 24-year-old has averaged 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals. His performance was quintessentially well-rounded.
Tommy Beer of BasketballInsider.com noted the historical relevance of George's first-round series:
Paul George is the only player in Pacers franchise history to score 24+ points and grab 8+ rebounds in four straight playoff games.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) May 3, 2014
The real sign of George's development is that he's finding ways to make an impact regardless of whether his outside shot is falling.
He made just two of 14 three-point attempts combined in Games 6 and 7. Whereas the younger George may have been flustered by the struggles, this time he found other ways to score and remained aggressive. George kept attacking, getting to the line 18 times in the two games and making the most of his much-improved in-between game.
Here's a look at how he fared in Game 7.
It's a sign of maturity as much as it is his improvement as a player.
It's also a sign that George has shaken off whatever got into him late in the season when his efficiency took a dive. After shooting 47 percent from the field in November and December, George made just 37 percent of his field-goal attempts in March.
You can speculate about what caused the temporary downturn. There were personal distractions. There was grief over the organization's decision to trade longtime Pacer Danny Granger. And there was a general team-wide identity crisis that seemed to rub off on George, replete with practice scuffles and questions over Vogel's job security.
You can't blame the guy for having an off month.
This much we know: George has lived up to expectations, and he's primed for a monster second round against the Washington Wizards.
NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony talked about the importance of Hibbert returning to form and what that could mean for the Pacers going forward:
The Wizards have some length to put on Indiana's superstar to be sure. Trevor Ariza is a fine defender and will make George work for his offense. But it certainly doesn't appear to be an insurmountable task for George, not with the way he's playing right now.
The Wizards will also look to clog the paint with big men Nene and Marcin Gortat. That puts a premium on George's ability to pull up from mid-range, something he's gotten much better at this season. All things considered, there's no reason to believe the Wizards will be able to shut George down entirely. But even he knows things won't be easy:
Paul George, on the Eastern Conference Semifinals: "It's going to be just as tough as this matchup… We're ready for the next round."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 4, 2014
Lost in the discussion of his superior offense is the fact that George remains one of the very best perimeter defenders in the game. He can guard multiple positions, disrupt passing lanes and serve as a stopper when opposing slashers try to get in the lane.
Those kind of contributions are invaluable, especially on a team that defines itself by its defense. Though Hibbert and West anchor that defense in the paint, George is its first line of resistance, and an awfully effective one at that.
George may well find himself guarding both John Wall and Bradley Beal at times, using his length and quickness to frustrate the young guards. Wall and Beal were instrumental in Washington knocking off the Chicago Bulls, and Indiana will put a high priority on limiting their looks.
Much as George has made a statement in this first-round series, the Pacers have also been exposed in a mixture of ways.
This series wasn't supposed to be so hard. Even with the Pacers' late-season struggles, it shouldn't have taken seven games to overtake the sub-.500 Hawks. Inconsistent play from Hibbert headlined the series, and he'll need to return to form for the duration of the conference semifinals.
The Pacers will also need Stephenson to remain a jack-of-all-trades, attacking the glass and attacking the basket without abandon.
Indiana could certainly use more help from its bench, which scored just 11 points Saturday. Evan Turner and Luis Scola must find ways to contribute against the Wizards. Though Vogel's rotation has obviously shortened for the postseason, his starting lineup just isn't productive enough to survive the remainder of the playoffs without help.
George can only do so much of this on his own.
Even if he's making it look like he can do just that.