Paul George Missing Golden Opportunity to Cement Superstar Status vs. Miami Heat

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Paul George Missing Golden Opportunity to Cement Superstar Status vs. Miami Heat
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

How do you define superstardom in the NBA?

It's a tricky question, simply because almost everyone has a different definition. Maybe there are only five players who can be granted that status at any one time. Maybe the number expands to include anyone who would be instantly recognized by an average sports fan. Maybe it's dependent on how often a player can produce highlights.

By any definition, Paul George has an opportunity to cement his superstar status during these Eastern Conference Finals with the Miami Heat.

While leading the Indiana Pacers to the top seed in the East, George flirted with superstardom throughout the 2013-14 season. He unquestionably earned it at the beginning of the year, but his star faded during a lackluster second half and the ensuing postseason struggles. 

But it's not like he's far off right now, and the Heat give him a perfect chance to leave no doubt in anyone's mind. Through the first two games, George hasn't been able to seize the opportunity. 

That has to change throughout the remaining portion of the series. 

 

Chips Aren't Falling Correctly

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

George began these Eastern Conference Finals playing quite well. In Game 1, he recorded 24 points, four rebounds, seven assists and a steal while sparking the Pacers onto a series-opening victory. 

"This is just a fun matchup," the Pacers small forward explained after the final buzzer, via NBA.com's Michael Marot. "It's one that we've been waiting for all year."

Problem is, Game 2 wasn't quite as much fun. 

George's shooting hindered his team's cause, and his four of 16 brickfest essentially served as a microcosm for the team's overall struggles. He was unable to find any sort of rhythm, and that doomed Indiana during the 87-83 loss, one that handed Miami de facto home-court advantage. On top of that, he conceded crunch-time touches to Lance Stephenson, which isn't exactly in the team's best interest. 

But the worst part came with 6:50 remaining in the contest: 

"I mean, I blacked out as soon as it happened," he said back in the locker room, as relayed by Steve Aschburner on NBA.com. "And then, the whole four or five minutes, however much time was remaining, I was just blurry. My eyes was blurry. I just tried to play through it."

Yikes. That's not a good thing. 

Since George revealed his blackout, the Pacers released an official statement, indicating that the team's No. 1 scoring option had suffered a concussion. And, as a result of the NBA's strict protocol when it comes to brain trauma, his status for Game 3 remains up in the air, as there are a number of tests he must pass before being allowed to step back onto the court during live action. 

For the sake of the argument, let's assume that George is able to play in Game 3, as well as throughout the rest of the series. If that's the case, he absolutely must start playing at a much higher level. 

Indiana can't afford for him to struggle anymore, and his status as a superstar is heavily dependent on his ability to meet the Pacers' ultimate goal. 

 

Ultimate Stage

USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, the hype train was out of control. 

A stellar start left George as a bona fide MVP candidate, and he was quickly starting to seem like one of the three best players in the league. Some people (cough, your's truly, cough) even went so far as declaring him one of the two best players to build a team around going forward. 

But the hype was a bit premature. 

George was still good throughout the 2013-14 season—good enough to rank No. 13 in my NBA 200 series—but he declined during the second half. He was unable to carry the offense like he did at the start of the year, and the vastly improved jumper started to disappear, slowly but surely. 

And as the Pacers' status as title favorites went away, so too did George's claim to superstardom. He'll get there one day (most likely), but the inability to maintain his excellent performance throughout the regular season put a serious damper on his stock. 

Then came the playoffs, and George rebounded rather nicely...at first: 

George's Roller Coaster
PPG RPG APG FG% 3P%
Pre-All-Star Break 22.2 6.4 3.4 43.8 37.0
Post-All-Star Break 20.8 7.5 3.7 39.6 35.1
First Round of Playoffs (vs. Atlanta) 23.9 10.7 4.6 45.8 40.4
Second Round of Playoffs (vs. Washington) 19.7 6.3 2.8 39.6 43.8
Eastern Conference Finals (vs. Miami) 19.0 4.5 6.5 37.9 45.5

Basketball-Reference.com

George was brilliant against the Atlanta Hawks, taking advantage of an overmatched defense and picking up the proverbial slack while the rest of his teammates forgot that scoring was one of the goals of basketball. But against the difficult defense of the Washington Wizards, he struggled. 

Hounded by Trevor Ariza and the rest of the Wiz at all times, George only shot over 40 percent from the field once in the six-game series. That came during a 39-point outing in Game 4, one in which he was absolutely feeling it from the perimeter. 

But other than that game, George has floundered on an increasingly large stage. And, as he knows from last season, it doesn't get much bigger than the one he currently occupies. 

This is the perfect opportunity for George to regain that superstar status. He's locked in a battle with LeBron James, and his Pacers have a legitimate opportunity to end the reign of the two-time defending champions. 

Giving up crucial touches to Stephenson is not the way to handle this situation. Allowing David West to continue asserting himself as the go-to player when all else fails is not in his best interest, at least not as an individual. 

After the opening salvo of the Eastern Conference Finals, my younger brother texted me to ask whether West or George was the leader of the Pacers. That's not exactly the type of question that should be asked at this stage, especially given that one of the options is supposed to be setting himself up as a superstar.

Just like he did last year. 

 

Done it Before

USA TODAY Sports

The Pacers were a different bunch during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, even if most of the faces are the exact same. They were brimming over with confidence, possessing a genuine belief that they could knock off Miami with their tough, physical defense. 

This year, Indiana had the same type of swagger at the beginning of the year, but the futility of the second half and early portion of the playoffs seems to have taken a toll on the roster. There isn't much chemistry, and it's almost as though no one expects to find success. 

As Bill Simmons espoused for Grantland, the Pacers seem to be significantly affected by how they feel they're perceived: 

But that’s the thing — these players and their fans are better off being angry, feeling like nobody believes in them, worrying about being the overlooked small market all over again and fretting that the other team’s superstar is always getting the calls. That’s their identity. That’s their DNA. Being the favorite, meeting a certain level of expectations, dealing with adversity, wearing that bull’s-eye all the time … maybe that’s not what they were meant to do. 

It's just a theory, but it makes sense. 

Indiana still felt disrespected heading into the season, making it a goal to emerge with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. But as Stephenson began to believe he was an All-Star snub, Roy Hibbert realized he was becoming one of the best centers in basketball and George let superstardom get to his head, things fell apart. 

Coincidence? Correlation? 

Your guess is as good as mine. But again, this theory makes sense. 

Now that Indiana has split the first two games, it's once more the underdog in the clash of burgeoning rivals. And that means everything can feel like last year.

So George, here's a reminder of what you did. 

During the seven-game series, the small forward averaged 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per contest while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 44.1 percent beyond the arc. Those numbers are also dragged down rather significantly by the lackluster showing in Game 7, as George actually posted significantly better stats through the first six outings. 

Over that time frame, the Indiana star averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per contest, shooting 50 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from downtown in the process. Pretty stellar marks, right? 

It wasn't just about the numbers, though. 

Remember when George drove through the Miami defense for a thunderous dunk that earned him respect from LeBron at the end of the quarter? 

Plays and moments like that helped make George more than just a star. 

He was putting up gaudy statistics, sure. But he was also doing so with flair, creating plenty of highlights and going punch for punch, blow for blow with the league MVP. When the moments got big, he just elevated his performance, leaving no doubt he was the unquestioned on-court leader of the Pacers. 

This year, not so much. 

There hasn't been one quintessential highlight, as George has disappeared down the stretch of Game 2 and failed to exert himself as an unstoppable two-way force. He's acted scared in big moments, allowing Stephenson to take over (which worked for a stretch).

The numbers aren't there, and neither is that flair. 

Fortunately for the 24-year-old Indiana standout, though, there's plenty of time left. 

Is Paul George a superstar?

Submit Vote vote to see results

At a minimum, three games are left on the schedule, and it seems highly unlikely that the inconsistent Pacers will either sweep that slate or, on the flip side, get swept themselves. But George can't wait any longer, because each game without a superstar performance depresses his stock. 

There can't be any more off nights. There can't be any more hiding in the corner while someone else does the heavy lifting. Assuming George is medically available and able to play at full strength, he must leave no doubt that he's the leader of these Pacers. 

Otherwise, Indiana will have a long offseason to think about how things went wrong. 

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