Paul George and David West helped the Indiana Pacers extend their season longer than anybody expected, but they'll have to make an even bigger impact if they hope to push the Miami Heat to the brink in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Based on the way they played in a critical, season-saving Game 5 victory, George and West are up to the challenge of a Game 6 matchup that will—yet again—force Indy to stare elimination square in the face.
One Breakout Won't Be Enough
George was masterful in Game 5, blowing up for 37 points in the contest on 15-of-28 shooting. His 21 points in the decisive fourth quarter were historically impressive.
Taking and making huge shots down the stretch, George resembled the two-way superstar we all thought he could be after his breakout effort last postseason. That version of George has shown up and disappeared sporadically over the past few months, but he was definitely in the house during Game 5.
The pressure to perform will be even greater in Game 6, though, and LeBron James probably won't be limited by loads of early fouls. That'll mean extra defensive attention from one of the NBA's most versatile stoppers, and it's hard to quantify just how much extra intensity James will bring after such a frustrating, foul-driven absence in his last outing.
Nobody wants to spend an entire game defended by LBJ, and the prospect of his undivided attention should be even more unsettling for George given the circumstances.
And it's not as though George coasted to easy buckets in Game 5. Even with James sidelined for huge portions of the contest, Indy's star small forward struggled to create open looks.
That's been a problem for George all year, as he doesn't have the lateral offensive quickness to routinely beat his man off the dribble and gets himself into trouble when aggressively trying to split the pick-and-roll.
If he couldn't find uncontested scoring chances without James draped all over him, how's he going to manage it with the 6'8" behemoth in his grill for 40 grueling minutes?
George will have to force the issue by getting into the lane, a dangerous proposition because of the ball-handling issues already mentioned. But that's the approach he must take, as free throws generated by aggressive drives may be the only unimpeded looks he'll see.
And if he draws James' undivided attention, maybe that'll open up teammates for scoring chances that wouldn't otherwise have been available. In that sense, George has already laid the groundwork for a potentially successful Game 6—if he can make himself dangerous as a facilitator.
Asking George to duplicate (or even build on) his phenomenal work in Game 5 is no small thing, but that's what he'll have to do for Indy to avoid the disappointment of elimination.
A Solid Sidekick
George won't be alone, though. He'll have West at his side, looking to build on his own excellent effort as the Pacers try to do the impossible.
West scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting and hauled in nine rebounds in Game 5. And amid George's eruption down the stretch, it was easy to miss West's critical contributions:
Indiana's emotional leader, West is essentially the only consistently stabilizing force on the roster. That's a particularly difficult role on a team with such built-in chemistry and confidence issues as these Pacers, and it' might even be fair to criticize him a bit for letting things get so out of hand at Indiana's lowest points this year.
But it seems likely the Pacers would have self-destructed even more violently were it not for West's no-nonsense demeanor and steadying influence.
There's no question he had an impact on George—all season long and in Game 5:
PG got most of the shine after his 37-point night, but West probably deserves credit for a "motivational assist."
Like George, West will find it difficult to replicate his Game 5 performance going forward. The Heat figure to revisit the small-ball lineup that forced him into tough covers earlier in the series, perhaps angling to get West matched up on Ray Allen again.
The last time that happened, Miami's veteran sharpshooter shook loose repeatedly in the fourth quarter, canning four triples as West struggled to find him on the perimeter.
So, West will be called to task in Game 6—not just as a secondary scoring option the Pacers desperately need, but also as a likely target of Miami's offense.
Now or Never
Broadly, we can point to any number of factors that could swing Game 6 for the Pacers.
They're a wildly inconsistent team that has buried itself and come back to life a handful of times over the past few weeks, and at this point, the only thing we can reliably predict about them is that they'll be unpredictable.
We could see a complete offensive dud. We could see inspired defense. We could see George channeling the attack mode he showed exactly one year ago:
Hell, we could see Lance Stephenson throw a bucket of confetti at James during a free-throw attempt. With these Pacers, everything is in play.
Ultimately, it's hard to know which Pacers team will show up for Game 6, and it's objectively difficult to make the case they can survive on the road against a defending champ still salty after a bitter defeat.
But if Indiana is going to have any chance at all, there's no mystery about what has to happen: George and West absolutely must give peak performances.