For all the curses endured by the Indiana Pacers Tuesday night—a narrow, series-tying loss to the Miami Heat, a concussion for All-Star forward Paul George—Lance Stephenson’s 25-point berserker ballet may have been the biggest blessing.
Stephenson absolutely must bring that brand of controlled fury to bear if the Pacers have any hopes of finally scaling Miami Mountain in these Eastern Conference Finals.
So long as George remains squarely in the driver's seat, that is.
First, a crucial caveat: According to CBS Sports’ Ken Berger, George’s status for Saturday’s Game 3 in Miami is uncertain, owing to a litany of NBA-sanctioned concussion tests PG3 must pass before being officially cleared to play.
But with a full four days between games, it seems likely George will ultimately get the green light.
With it, he needs to focus on regaining the reins from Stephenson.
Not that his performance bodes ill—far from it. In Stephenson, the Pacers boast not just one of the best young shooting guards in the league, but a Grade-A pest capable, on the right night, of sending Miami's main engines flying off the rails.
At the same time, given George and David West’s struggles (the two combined to shoot 9-of-32 from the floor), Stephenson’s fantastic performance was less found money than the simple fruits of desperation.
It was the barbaric yawp of a young, perpetually questioned talent haunted for years by doubts about character and on-court demeanor alike.
Stephenson has a shot at becoming a legitimate secondary option on a title-winning team—perhaps even this one, if all rolls right.
George, on the other hand, was born beneath a different basketball sign: a two-way superstar capable of not just leading a franchise, but flat-out transforming it.
In his essential profile for ESPN The Magazine, Pablo Torre parses out both the tangibles and intangibles of George’s ascendance, levying a legend’s take to make a simple point: This guy has a chance to become one of the true greats.
Of course, somebodies like Paul aren't falling off trees -- or all teams would have one. Consider that George has rated first overall in Defensive Win Shares for two straight seasons while ranking in the top 10 in steals per game for three. Meanwhile, among those who play at least 30 minutes a game, he ranks second in opponent field goal percentage at the rim, barely behind Hibbert. ‘I don't know if I've ever seen anyone Paul's size defend like he does,’ says [Larry] Bird, a man hardly prone to hyperbole. ‘It's unbelievable.’
True, Torre’s piece was published before Indiana’s stunning stumble down the season’s stretch; before George’s extra-planetary potential came plummeting—albeit briefly—down to earth.
Those looking for a single stat to underscore his monumental importance to the Pacers can stop here: Dating back to the regular season, Indiana is 45-14 in games where George scores 20 points or more, including 7-2 in these playoffs.
On a team that often struggles to orchestrate a succinct, coherent offense, George’s ability to create his own shot—whether by beauty or bruising—is indispensable.
To beat the Heat, though, will require more than simple necessity.
In his four regular-season meetings with Miami, George’s numbers were mostly on par with his overall output: 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 43-percent shooting (42-percent from distance).
Par for the course might win you a tournament split in the wintertime. In this field, however, it might not get you through the weekend.
Against as seasoned a team as the Heat, even a player of George’s caliber is bound to have a bad night—Tuesday’s subpar showing being a prime example. Which is what makes having someone as superlatively capable as Stephenson all the more important.
Ditto David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and the rest of Indy’s supporting cast.
But where West's ferocity often feels forced, Hibbert's fragility far too routine, Hill's stone-faced steadiness off-putting and Stephenson's hot-headed theatrics endlessly maddening, George has always put forth the appropriate emotion.
Never too hot, never too cold. If ever there was a better bellwether for big-league leadership, that might well be it.
When the history books come to mark against these Pacers, it’ll be as a team belonging to the skinny kid from California—the player that, despite the bad jumper and shaky decision making, even Larry Legend knew would wind up something special.
George and Stephenson both arrived to the NBA as high-upside flyers—literally and figuratively. Both bring a unique mix of god-given gifts, gaudy intangibles and games sweat-honed and doubter-driven. Both are cornerstones in their own, distinct right.
But if Indiana’s chances of raising its first post-merger banner are to be anything but dreams repeatedly deferred, the weight of expectations will be—and must be—put most heavily on George’s shoulders.