In one of Larry Bird's last acts as Pacers president, he called the fourth-best player on the team to talk about unseating the single best player in the world. It was the middle of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, and small forward Paul George was defending Heat counter-part LeBron James, clinging to his waistband by a thin black thread. "He told me to be patient," George recalls. "He told me I would grow and develop and pick things up as a result of what I was experiencing." Bird knows better than anybody that an adversary can both embarrass and inspire. He realized that the Pacers were probably going to lose. He also recognized that George was not going to be their fourth-best player for long.
Over the next two weeks Indiana will inflict inordinate punishment on James and the Heat as the teams meet again in the conference finals. The Pacers' system, which they describe as "smash-mouth," is almost as rugged as the Colts' 3--4. They sometimes require at least one set of shoulder pads to practice it. "If you play these guys," said former Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, "you've got to be ready to take a bloody nose." Unlike the helter-skelter schemes popularized by the Bulls and Celtics, the Pacers' defensive approach is straightforward. They disdain double teams. They rarely rotate. They hesitate to help. They simply ask their massive perimeter players to smother whoever is in front of them—"Suffocate," clarifies center Roy Hibbert—and fight through pick-setters as if they're tackling dummies. Don't get screened is an organizational mantra. Indiana allowed the NBA's lowest opposing field goal percentage (42.0%), including lowest at the three-point line (32.7%) and lowest at the rim (32.1%), where Hibbert stands sentry like a 7'2" bouncer. "The TV ratings for this series are horrible," Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw told a few players during the Eastern Conference semis against the Knicks, which the underdog Pacers closed out in six games last Saturday. "People turn it off after the first quarter." The players beamed.
Miami has run this gantlet before, albeit with bruises, emerging from a 2--1 deficit in last year's semis to prevail in six. James scored 98 points in the last three games, Dwyane Wade 99, and the rosters haven't changed much since then. One player, however, has been transformed, and he is the lone reason to believe the outcome can also be different. After the Pacers fell to the Heat, Bird retired to Florida and George flew home to Los Angeles, where he watched videos of the games in agent Aaron Mintz's office at CAA. Two days later George ducked into the office again and asked for the remote. "He was embarrassed with the way those guys took over and he didn't," Shaw says. "He saw the room for growth." George put together a mental checklist of qualities he needed to enhance: ballhandling, shooting, post-ups and strength. "I'm going to return a new player," he told Indiana coach Frank Vogel.
On Saturday, after the Pacers advanced to the Eastern finals for the first time since 2004, they held a press conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse featuring all five starters—even shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who momentarily forgot his pants in the locker room. The democratic tableau furthered the quaint notion that Indiana has no headliners, in contrast to the megawatt Heat, and it used to ring true. But the 23-year-old George is now an All-Star and the Most Improved Player of the year, perhaps the premier perimeter defender in the NBA and maybe the league's hardest worker. He led the Pacers in minutes (37.6 per game), points (17.4) and steals (1.8) this season. He leads them in assists and ranks second in rebounds this postseason. He guards the opposition's top wing without reinforcements, and through the first 11 playoff games, spot-up shooters were a woeful 9 of 37 against him, according to Synergy Sports. No one halts James, but George has the best chance to irritate him.
"A lot of guys get steals but can't contain," says Vogel. "And a lot of guys keep you in front but aren't long enough to get the ball. He does both." PG, a nickname that makes him sound as innocent as a rom-com, is 6'9" with Durantesque arms and a vertical leap that enabled him to fly over Hibbert at the Slam Dunk Contest last year. Even when they beat George to the basket, Carmelo Anthony and others tend to peek behind their backs, as if they're worried he might hop over their heads, too. You can't blame them for straining to keep track of George. He comes out of nowhere.
His parents are named Paul and Paulette, so their only son had to be another Paul. Like Pacers immortal Reggie Miller, he grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and like Miller, he learned basketball from an older sister. Teiosha George starred at Palmdale High and Paul tagged along to her practices, shooting on a side basket. When Teiosha earned a scholarship to Pepper-dine, Paul spent summers living with her on the campus and working out at Firestone Fieldhouse. Miller, a Malibu resident, regularly showed up at the gym for extra jumpers. Paul quietly stared.
Palmdale is a desert town only an hour north of L.A., but for a basketball prospect, it seemed a remote outpost. George spent more time fishing with his father than preening for college recruiters. He played at the YMCA because he couldn't find a club team. Not until the summer before his senior year did he join an AAU program, Pump N' Run in L.A., but he was on the B team alongside a skinny guard named Klay Thompson, now a Warriors sharpshooter.
George had the build of a prodigy—already 6'8" with a wingspan of nearly seven feet—but he didn't act like one. "A lot of kids with that kind of talent only pay attention when you're talking about offense," says Tom Hegre, who coached George at Pete Knight High in Palmdale. "They just want to dribble and shoot. Paul actually paid more attention when I was talking about defense." George's favorite player was Kobe Bryant, but when his father bought him Lakers gear, he refused to wear it. The Clippers were his team.
He fashioned himself a scrapper, like his mother, who suffered a stroke and two blood clots in her brain when he was 10. George was outside at the time, shooting hoops in his driveway, when he heard the wail of the ambulance. "We all rushed to the hospital, and that night, the doctors declared her dead," George recalls. The pronouncement was premature. George slept in his mom's hospital room, and when she moved back home, he curled up in a blanket next to her bed. "It took me two years to be able to walk and talk and see again," says Paulette, who is still partially paralyzed on her left side. "He watched me fight." The family still calls him Man for the strength he demonstrated as a boy.
George didn't want to go far from home after high school, but Fresno State was the only major college nearby that offered him a scholarship. Though most coaches viewed George as a power forward, the Bulldogs, who were on probation, had just eight scholarships and a hole on the perimeter. "I told Paul, 'I'll play you at small forward,' " says former Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland, now an ESPNU analyst. " 'But you're going to have to learn to defend smaller guys.' "
In two years with the Bulldogs, George lost more games than he won. He deferred to upperclassmen. He went scoreless as a sophomore against San Jose State. But Cleveland stuck with a man-to-man defense that allowed George to showcase his prowess on the ball. He was projected as a late first-round draft pick in 2010 when he started workouts at the 360 Health Club outside L.A. with former NBA sniper Don MacLean. During an early scrimmage George blew past then Wizards guard Nick Young but passed the next two possessions so as not to embarrass an elder.
"He was a really nice kid who came from a really nice family," MacLean says. "Not that your upbringing has to be bad to play like an em-effer but sometimes that's the case. He was not an assertive guy yet. I pushed him hard, and I don't think he'd ever been pushed that hard before. I told him, 'Paul, I'm going to ask you to dominate, and I wouldn't ask that if I didn't think you could.' "
Mintz sent him to train with another client in L.A., Indiana forward Danny Granger, and they grew so close that George celebrated his 19th birthday at Granger's house. The Pacers held the 10th pick and were interested in George, even though he played the same position as Granger and represented a potential quarterback controversy. "He was raw," said former Pacers general manager David Morway, "but you saw his athleticism and agility. He has all the attributes you want to build a team around." Seeking a scouting report from one of his own, Bird asked Mintz to have Granger call him. But by the day of the draft, at 1 a.m., Bird still had not heard from Granger, and he'd left two messages himself. Mintz called Granger and told him to put his phone on mute. Then he dialed George, and without telling him, looped Granger into the call. Mintz asked George, "Where do you want to go in the draft tomorrow?"
"Indiana," George replied.
"Why?" Mintz asked.
"I think I can learn so much from Danny."
Mintz hung up on George and asked Granger, "Can you call Bird now?"
Against his self-interest, Granger gave a glowing endorsement, and until this season George was little more than his tenacious sidekick. When George claimed over dinner as a rookie that he would be an All-Star by his third season, a teammate snickered. His dogged defense earned him limited minutes under coach Jim O'Brien, but he became a starter under Vogel, who took over in January 2011. "The teams winning championships then had big front lines," Vogel says. "The Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Celtics had Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins, the Mavericks had Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki." The oversized Pacers, meanwhile, were jacking three-pointers like the Suns. "Guys around the league would tell me how easy it was to play us," says Hibbert. "We just shot threes all the time. And we lost."
On the day Vogel took over, he called the players together and outlined their new identity. "He told us, 'This is what I envision,' " recalls forward Tyler Hansbrough. " 'Smash-mouth, blue-collar, grind-it-out power basketball played around the rim.' " Vogel instituted his help-free defense, a system that wouldn't hum without George sealing the three-point line or Hibbert guarding the rim. The Pacers force scorers to pull up for midrange jumpers, the lowest-efficiency shot.
George was a proven stopper, but offensively he loitered along the arc, averaging just 10.0 points and 36.5% shooting in the series against Miami. When this season began and Indiana announced opening night that Granger was out indefinitely because of left knee troubles, president Donnie Walsh thought, We could be in for a long year. George had spent the summer working on his dribble with ballhandling guru Jerry Powell, his post-ups with MacLean and his stroke with Shaw. Shaw texted him during Lakers games to study Bryant. But Granger was Indy's leading scorer last season; George, with 12.1 points per game, was fourth. "Frank told me, 'You're going to have to take a larger role,' and that's exactly what I wanted," George says. "I wanted to be the go-to guy for our team."
On Dec. 1, he went scoreless at Golden State, missing all seven of his shots. The Pacers, supposed contenders in the East, were 8--9. On the flight home George sat next to reserve guard Orlando Johnson, who played at UC Santa Barbara and faced him in college. "You need to get back to the basics," Johnson instructed. When the plane landed, George fired 500 jumpers on Indiana's practice court and formulated a supplementary 30-minute shooting routine he vowed to complete before every game. "He took the early bus, and if he couldn't do that, he took a cab," says assistant coach Jim Boylen. "He was out there when the cheerleaders were practicing."
Three days after the clunker against the Warriors, George scored 34 points in a win at Chicago. "Everything changed with that game," Johnson says. "His season, and our season, turned there."
Before the conference semifinals, George received a call from a number he didn't recognize. "I texted back, 'Who's this?' " George says. "The response was, 'It's Reg.' " Miller delivered a brief history lesson on Pacers-Knicks, mid-1990s, and encouraged George to savor the Madison Square Garden stage. For 13 days George mirrored Anthony, running wherever he ran, rising whenever he rose. In Game 6, Anthony scored 35 points in the first three quarters, and the Knicks led by three with nine minutes left. Eventually, though, the shadow catches up. Anthony missed his next three shots and coughed up three costly turnovers and Bankers Life Fieldhouse erupted with chants of Beat the Heat. As George plopped into a folding chair at his locker after the 106--99 win, slipping on a pair of pink shower shoes, a club official standing nearby mentioned, "We're the only team to beat Miami two out of three times this year."
In one of those games James scored 13 points, his fewest of the season. In another he committed seven turnovers, matching his most. But he still made more shots than he missed, and the last time he met the Pacers in the playoffs he bulldozed by them as if they were props in a Samsung commercial. With the Knicks out of the way, George tried to relish a few precious moments between Anthony and James. To relax, he fishes on Geist Reservoir, a man-made lake near point guard George Hill's house. But there was no time for casting, not with the whale looming in Biscayne Bay.
Granger played only five games this season, requiring surgery on his left knee, and his absence prompted his protégé's ascent. Last week, George was watching Oklahoma City against Memphis on television in his apartment when Oklahoma City point guard and close friend Reggie Jackson made a quick first step to the basket. "This summer," George announced, "I want to work on that move." He must attack more, pull up less, and raise a shooting percentage that dipped to 41.9% this season with increased attempts. "I don't even know anymore where his ceiling is," says Walsh.
Miami is lifting the NBA, the way the Lakers once boosted the Celtics, and vice versa. Then, Magic and Bird were spurring each other, and now it is James and a whole generation. George is among them, his emergence a response to the Heat, and suddenly a threat.
After last year's exit, Shaw says George was "embarrassed. He saw the room for growth."
"Paul actually paid more attention when I was talking about defense," says his high school coach.
Location, Location, Location
NBA coaches love layups and corner threes, the two most efficient shots in the game. Well, good luck getting either against the Pacers—and good luck making it on the off chance you do. Those terrible midrange J's? You can find plenty there for the taking. Here's a look at the looks that Indiana's opponents get:
Who will go first overall: Nerlens Noel or Ben McLemore (left)? Check out Chris Mannix's initial mock draft—along with complete coverage of the conference finals—this week at SI.com/mag
Photograph by ISSAC BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
HEAT CHECK James sparked last season's playoff comeback, but during the regular season George and Indiana largely stifled the King, going 2--1 against Miami.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CRISP PAUL George became a bigger part of the attack with his mentor sidelined, raising his average shot attempts from 9.7 last year to 14.9.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GEORGE)
BLANKET COVERAGE While Anthony averaged 28.5 points, George hounded him into shooting less than 40% in three of the series' six games.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MCLEMORE)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
NEITHER INSIDE NOR OUT While George hounds opponents on the perimeter, Hibbert (in background) watches the rim for the NBA's stingiest defense.