Soaring George Seeking a Higher Level

Paul George is playing the best basketball of his seven-season NBA career. The question is, will that be good enough.

The Pacers get the privilege of playing defending-champion Cleveland in the first round of the NBA playoffs, beginning Saturday afternoon. And the way their season has gone, it is indeed a privilege. It took a season-ending five-game win streak to get there, including Wednesday’s 104-86 victory over Atlanta that captured the No. 7 seed. They have no right to complain about their fate, and no desire to do so, either.

Besides, the Cavaliers are suddenly the NBA’s most mysterious team. They finished just 21-20 the second half of the season, and enter the playoffs with a four-game losing streak. The Pacers took them to two overtimes two Sundays ago, and would have won if George hadn’t missed a crucial free throw late in regulation.

He can be forgiven for that amid the bigger picture. He finished Wednesday’s victory with 32 points and 11 rebounds, scoring 12 in the final quarter when he hit 5-of-6 field goal attempts. His late-game scoring efficiency has become so routine that it’s easy to take for granted, but it shouldn’t be.

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Consider: He scored 20 or more points in the last 12 games, and finished the season with a career-best 23.7-point average. He averaged 28.8 points over the last 21 games, hitting 56 percent of his field goal attempts and 42 percent of his three-point attempts, and grabbed 7.6 rebounds per game as well.

“He looks like a young T-Mac (Tracy McGrady) in Orlando,” said Lance Stephenson, who’s been a personal witness to the past six games. “He’ in attack mode, he’s finding open shots, getting rebounds, playing tough defense. He’s been outstanding.”

There’s just one problem: LeBron James. George had perhaps his best game of the season when the Pacers last met the Cavaliers, scoring a season-high 43 points. It wasn’t enough. James played 51 1/2 of the game’s 58 minutes and sand-blasted the Pacers with 41 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists, and just one turnover.

So, it might be time for George to pick it up a little.

“There’s always another level to get to,” he said. “It’s just going all out every possession, every play. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. I’m confident going into the playoffs that I can get to that next level.”

George knows what he’s up against, having witnessed James in playoff mode back when James was soaking up the South Beach sun and leading Miami to victories over the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014. George had his moments in those series, but couldn’t match up to James.

George shows no fear, however. He’s displayed an increasing desire to take on major challenges in recent years, and he loves doing it in the national spotlight. Told after Wednesday’s game the Pacers would open the playoffs in an ABC network telecast, George perked up.

“Oooh. We’re on ABC. That’s nice,” he said.

“It will be fun. It’s fun. I love the playoffs, love playing on the biggest stage. It will be great going up against LeBron again.

“You’ve got to outwork him, you’ve got to outplay him, you’ve got to outthink him.”

George turns 27 on May 2. James is 32, and has a lot of tread from his 14 NBA seasons. Who knows? Maybe Father Time and Mother Nature will conspire to begin tipping the scales George’s way. He knows better than to count on it, however. The Cavs have strategically rested James this season for a reason: the postseason. And, they have essentially the same team that won last year’s championship along with the addition of Kyle Korver, who averaged 25.5 points and hit 14-of-17 3-pointers in his two games against the Pacers this season.

“We approach them as any other team,” George said. “We can’t…be worried. We have to challenge them, play them straight up. It’s going to be tough. They’ve been struggling as of late, but they’re still one of the best teams in this game. And they have one of the best players in the world.

“It’s going to be a fun matchup, I’m looking forward to it. It’s who I wanted to match up against. We’re excited.”

Robinson Almost Ready

Remember Glenn Robinson III?

Not long ago, he was the brightest talking point of the Pacers’ season, showing promise in several games and winning the NBA’s Slam Dunk competition over All-Star Weekend.

He hasn’t played since the game at Boston on March 22, having strained his left calf in practice the next day and missing the past 11 games. The freak injury occurred during a five-on-five drill, without contact.

He went through a full workout Wednesday morning for the first time, and had no problems. He hopes to return for the opening playoff series against the Cavs — perhaps in one of the first two games in Cleveland.

“It’s looking a lot better,” he said.

A lot has changed since Robinson departed, primarily the arrival of Stephenson. Although Stephenson could take minutes from Robinson, he looks forward to playing with the newcomer.

“Just by watching him, seeing the energy he brings, it would be fun to be on the court the same time as him. He gets the ball and runs, and that’s what I like to do. He has his moves off the dribble and I like to cut, and he’s a willing passer, so I’m definitely excited to be out there with him.”

No matter what happens in the playoffs , Robinson considers this season a success.

“I came into the season wanting to be a better player, wanting to have a bigger role on this team,” he said. “I think I did that. I got the confidence of my teammates. Hopefully I have a lot of basketball left and can do whatever I can to help the team.”

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