The Indiana Pacers shouldn’t have had a chance against the Toronto Raptors.
Frank Vogel’s team was in stage one of a rebuilding process, went through multiple stylistic and rotational changes throughout the regular season, and lacked home-court advantage against an opponent whose fan base might be the NBA’s best. The Pacers also had just one All-Star compared to the Raptors’ two, and simply lacked the top-to-bottom talent of their first-round foe.
This was a two seed facing a seven seed, remember. Indiana, based on everything that transpired over the previous six months, had no business forcing a Game 7 at Air Canada Centre and nearly stealing the series with a crunch-time run. Well, save for the fact that Paul George was wearing gold and midnight blow.
After his team survived to beat the Pacers 89-84 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001, Dwane Casey heaped praise on the superstar his team never quite figured out how to stop.
A comparison to prime Kobe Bryant always seems like hyperbole at first glance. Young Mamba is among the most electric and consistent all-around players basketball has ever seen. George, however, just might be worthy of such a glowing observation following the best playoff performance of his career.
He scored 27.3 points, grabbed 7.6 rebounds, dished 4.3 assists, and swiped 2.0 steals per game against Toronto, all while forcing Toronto star DeMar DeRozan into horrendous 31.9 percent shooting. George’s dominance is even more impressive considering not just the awful leg injury that put his playing days in doubt less than two years ago, but also the extent to which he was the Raptors’ defensive focus.
The Pacers, after all, were the worst offensive team to qualify for the postseason. Monta Ellis never found his footing against Toronto, George Hill was typically underutilized, and Indiana’s overall supporting cast didn’t play the way most thought it needed for this to be a competitive series.
But no matter. There was George, splashing pull-up three-pointers, attacking the paint for difficult finishes, and taking advantage of the Raptors’ defensive strategy by finding teammates for open looks. His was an awesome performance from the time Game 1 tipped off two weeks ago, and one he won’t soon forget.
Is George the next Kobe? No player should have to suffer the inevitable burden associated with carrying that label. Nothing short of multiple championships and perennial MVP contention would ever render it foolproof.
Whether he reaches Bryant’s level or not, though, what’s obvious after the Pacers’ hard-fought seven-game loss is that George has never been better – a sobering thought for the rest of the league given where he was just a short time ago.