1. George, Pacers Rounding Into Form
Midway through the first half, James continued his stride on a fast break well after the whistle was blown to stop play following a foul. As James streaked toward the basket, Heat teammate Dwyane Wade tossed a meaningless lob pass just inside the half-court line toward the rim.
James knew the play was dead, but went for the highlight moment anyway. In one motion, he caught the lob in mid-air, turned his back toward the basket and slammed in a vicious, reverse dunk that momentarily wooed the Pacers.
No one in the building seemed more impressed than George, who approached James with an admiring grin.
The awe would quickly vanish.
Then came the envy, which soon seemed to be followed by somewhat of an epiphany.
"They're amazing players -- superstars in this league," George said. "I looked at this as a chance to challenge myself against the guy who is the best in the league. This is a chance to see where I'm at -- to challenge myself and go at LeBron. I knew LeBron was coming at me [so] I was trying to do the same going back at him."
George took advantage of the stage and never let up on his way to outshining James and Wade in the Pacers' 87-77 win in their first meeting since Miami eliminated Indiana in six-games during the second round of last season's playoffs.
With arguably his most complete performance of the season, George had 29 points on 12-of-27 shooting to go with 11 rebounds and two assists in 44 minutes. But his offense was the consolation prize for the Pacers when compared with his defense. George spent most his time assigned to contain James, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds but tied his season high with seven turnovers.
George managed to commit only two fouls in the process, with James attempting just four free throws in 44 minutes.
It was another breakthrough moment for George, the third-year swingman who has taken over the leadership role and filled the primary scoring role as Danny Granger recovers from a knee injury that has sidelined him all season.
The Pacers stopped well short of declaring Tuesday's performance against the struggling Heat as a statement victory. But it did serve as an opportunity to measure their progress in some ways against the defending champions who have won the Eastern Conference the past two seasons.
"It's always a confidence-booster, beating a team as good as Miami," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "What happened last year, this is not a redemption. Beating them in the playoffs would be a redemption. It's just one win. We're happy about it, but nothing more than that."
The Pacers, who have won 11 of their past 14 games, kept the performance against the Heat in perspective. But they also further exposed the two major weaknesses that have plagued their conference nemesis this season.
With George, David West and Roy Hibbert each finishing in double figures in rebounds, the Pacers pounded Miami inside and closed with 55-36 edge on the glass. It was the third time in five games the Heat were outrebounded by at least 17 boards. Tuesday's total included 22 offensive rebounds for Indiana, most by a Heat opponent this season.
"We just didn't allow them to land that big blow that they usually land on teams," West said. "They staggered us a little bit. But I thought we did a good job of staying on our feet and ultimately recovered. You can't overreact to that. But we're a different team than we were in that series."
West insists the Pacers are a more resilient team than the squad that rapidly faltered after pushing out to a 2-1 series lead against the Heat in the playoffs last season. Of course, Indiana must ultimately prove it in May or June.
Miami also continued its inconsistent play on the road, where they fell to 7-7 away from AmericanAirlines Arena, with Indiana being the first stop on a six-game trip that runs through Portland, Sacramento, Utah, Golden State and Los Angeles to face the Lakers over the next week.
"It's frustrating, very frustrating," James said of the Heat, who are 4-4 in their past eight games and hold a half-game lead over New York for the best record in the East. "It's reached the point where we have to figure it out."
While the Heat continue to search, the Pacers are learning more each game about what they have in George, a 6-foot-9 versatile talent who could attain All-Star status next month considering the strides he has made to average career highs in points (16.7), rebounds (7.4) and assists (3.7) this season.
George remains a work in progress. Last season against Miami in the playoffs, he struggled offensively and shot 19-of-52 from the field. Coming into Tuesday's game, George failed to score in double figures in consecutive games.
But then, there are moments like the one he had against Miami.
Coincidentally, James had a lot to do with that development. Much is made of the offseason workouts James has with Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul. But James also spent time working out and mentoring George during Team USA's training camp in Las Vegas prior to the Olympics. The two also toured Asia for endorsement appearances.
George reflected on those moments after Tuesday's game.
George said James encouraged him to use his athleticism to become one of the best two-way players in the game. They also spoke about making the transition from a talented prospect to a team leader. George also picked up some training pointers from Kobe Bryant over the summer.
"I was around him a lot," George said of James. "I got a lot of time to spend, talk to him and learn some things from him. Through this summer, he was somebody I looked up to. It was all love. But I definitely wanted to battle him."
Tuesday was a chance to show the tutelage is paying off.
After falling to the Heat last postseason, George spent his summer looking up to James. On Tuesday, George relished the chance to stare him down.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Reggie Evans. Evans, at this moment, does one thing better than anyone else on the planet: rebound the basketball. The association's leader in rebounding rate two of the past three seasons pulled down a career-high 23 boards on Tuesday, which, when he left the game for good at the tail end of the third period, gave him several more than the entire Philadelphia team.
Defining moment: The third quarter. Leading 48-47 when the second half began, Brooklyn unleashed a tail-kicking of epic (or, depending on your allegiance, excruciating) proportions. The Nets ripped off an 18-2 run out of the gate, shot 14-of-19 overall, and outscored the Sixers 35-14 in the period.
That was a vanishing act: Jrue Holiday's first quarter: 12 points on four shots with six assists against zero turnovers. His final three periods: seven points on seven shots with two assists against four turnovers. He backslid faster than the Sixers' playoff hopes.
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Paul George. Even while guarding LeBron James, George managed to put up numbers, but what really impressed was the aggressive, confident manner in which he launched 3-pointers, stuck pull-ups and probed the lane. His two third-quarter 3s changed the tide of the game.
That was old fashioned: Miami (and previously, Dallas) proved a team without traditional big men can win it all. But on Tuesday night, the Pacers played lock-down defense and dominated the boards. Indiana's 22-7 offensive-rebounding edge helped them shoot 23 more field goals than Miami.
X factor: Dwyane Wade. He hit eight of his first 12 shots while scoring 23 of Miami's 42 points in the first half. He also had a rare big night from behind the arc to keep Indiana's defense guessing.
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: James Harden. It was a brutally efficient offensive effort from Harden, who finished with 31 points and nine assists. He also managed to tie a franchise record for most consecutive games scoring 25 or more points.
Defining moment: In the fourth, Jeremy Lin lofted a floater in the lane and got knocked down hard by Robert Sacre for an and-1. The Rockets were characteristically fast and furious, and Lin's drive was a splendid example.
That was special: Steve Nash has 10,005 career assists. Milestones may be arbitrary, but this distinction is something only four other players in history can claim. Congratulations to Nash, a true exemplar of the point guard position.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Nikola Pekovic took advantage of the matchup against the shorter Al Horford, recording 25 points and 18 rebounds. The Wolves went to Pek in the post early, which helped build a lead that the Hawks weren't able to overcome.
Least valuable player: Jeff Teague has had a rough stretch lately, shooting .32 percent in his past five games. He hasn't been much better defensively, as he was continually letting Minnesota's guards get around him and into the lane. It wasn't a surprise that the Hawks started to rally when Teague went to the bench with five fouls.
Defining moment: Horford and Josh Smith were key in the Hawks' comback, but the two combined for the penultimate miscue with 15 seconds left in the game: Smith threw a bad inbounds pass, and Horford allowed Cunningham to easily get around him for the steal. After two Ridnour free throws, the game was essentially over.
3. Tuesday's Best
James Harden, Rockets: Harden tallied 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting in the Rockets' comeback win over the Lakers. Along with Jeremy Lin, The Bearded One went into attack mode in the third quarter to lift Houston to its fifth straight win.
Heat's rebounding: Miami's small-ball lineup again failed to address its glaring weakness on the boards in a loss in Indianapolis. The Pacers outrebounded the defending champs, 55-36, on the boards -- 22-7 on the offensive glass -- and held them to a season-low 77 points.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I almost called Jim 'Scott' at one point,"
-- Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, on getting used to interim coach Jim Boylan on the bench.
8. ... And One
9. Stat Check
Reggie Evans had the most interesting statistical line of the night in the NBA.
Evans grabbed 23 rebounds and scored only two points in the Nets' romp over the 76ers. Only six other players in NBA history had a game in which they had at least 23 rebounds and no more than two points. Dennis Rodman had five such games in his NBA career.
In one of them he hauled in 28 rebounds without scoring a point. Ben Wallace had two games like that, while Arnie Risen (1954), Bill Bridges (1965), Bill Russell (1968) and Wilt Chamberlain (1973) had one each.
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Brandon Jennings. Playing for the first time without the only head coach he has ever known, Scott Skiles, Milwaukee's second-leading scorer took control of the contest in the second half with a game-high 29 points (5-of-7 from 3-point range) and 9 assists.
X factor: With interim coach Jim Boylan at the helm, Ersan Ilyasova was inserted back into Milwaukee's starting lineup and made the most of his opportunity Tuesday night. The Turkish forward had 12 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, and played a pivotal role in the Bucks' game-changing 13-0 run in the third quarter.
That was almost historic: In a battle of 1968 expansion teams, the Suns had an opportunity to become the fourth-fastest NBA club to win 2,000 games. Unfortunately for Alvin Gentry & Co., Phoenix fell short of the milestone for the third consecutive game.