Four seasons ago, Paul George introduced himself to a national audience by going toe-to-toe, shot-for-shot and stop-for-stop with LeBron James in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series that saw George’s Indiana Pacers fall to James’ Miami Heat, but only after the reigning NBA champion, Most Valuable Player and Finals MVP recognized real, and the rise of a worthy challenger in the Eastern Conference.
A lot’s happened since then — a dynasty deferred in Miami, a move back to Cleveland and a promise kept; the dismantling of those Pacers, a shattered leg and a hard-earned comeback. The two All-Star forwards now find themselves in drastically different situations, with LeBron still fighting for the No. 1 seed and a championship while George battles just to get his team into the postseason and wonders about his future. On Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena, though, James and George were right back where they used to be: playing “Can You Top This?” and waiting to see who would blink first.
James and George turned in a duel worthy of their remarkable talents at the Q, a mano a mano battle that started with trading monster dunks on one another …
… and carried through the fourth quarter, and beyond, as LeBron, PG-13 and their squads needed two extra sessions to settle things.
Ultimately, James had more help when it counted, as Kevin Love went a perfect 4-for-4 from the field in double overtime, including a dagger 3-pointer (off a LeBron high-post kickout, natch) with 26.5 seconds remaining …
… and Kyrie Irving drained all four of his free throws in the final 17 seconds to salt away a 135-130 win in a 2OT classic.
James finished with 41 points on 16-for-29 shooting, 16 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals, one block and just one turnover in 52 minutes of floor time, notching his career-high 11th triple-double of the season. George was every ounce his equal for most of the matchup, scoring a game-high 43 points on 16-for-33 shooting to go with nine rebounds, nine assists, three steals and one block with three turnovers in 48 brilliant minutes. This was two capital-S superstars planting their feet and throwing haymaker after haymaker at one another, each knowing how badly their team needed the W.
James’ Cavs needed to keep pace with the East-leading Boston Celtics, who had slapped around the woeful New York Knicks earlier Sunday, and needed another win to help shake off a dismal month that left Cleveland “in a bad spot” heading into the postseason. George’s Pacers needed a win to inject some energy and cause for optimism into a team that has been playing with “no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride” during a skid that had seen Indy drop three straight and five of six to slip to the edge of the Eastern playoff bracket.
The Cavs looked to have things well in hand, ripping off a 15-2 run spanning the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth to open up a 14-point lead with 10:21 left in regulation. But Indy stormed back, with reserve swingman C.J. Miles scoring eight straight points to cut the deficit to two, 96-94, midway through the frame.
LeBron did his level best to take over, scoring Cleveland’s final 13 points of regulation, including a late-shot-clock fadeaway 10-footer to knot the score at 104 with 1:01 left in the fourth:
LeBron with gorgeous fade ties it 104-104, scored last 13 Cavs points in the 4th https://t.co/B12JUkdsP7 #NBA— All Ball (@allballapp) April 3, 2017
After George shook LeBron with a crossover on the other end, his stepback 3 fell short. On the ensuing Cavs possession, Cleveland center Tristan Thompson drew a foul and headed to the line for two shots with 26 seconds left … and missed them both, giving the Pacers another chance for the win. But the Cavs swarmed George into giving the ball up, Indy center Myles Turner’s jumper went awry, and Cleveland couldn’t successfully inbound the ball for a shot attempt on the other end, sending the game heading to OT tied at 104-all.
George drilled a 3 to give Indiana a 113-111 edge with 1:33 left in the first extra session, then stole a Cleveland inbounds pass a minute later to keep the Pacers on top and give them a shot to go up by two possessions. After he missed a stepback jumper with 16 seconds on the clock, though, LeBron backed him down at the right elbow before skipping a pass to J.R. Smith in the far corner for a huge triple to put Cleveland up 114-113 with 2.8 seconds left:
George was able to draw Thompson into fouling him in the act of shooting on the next play, and stepped to the line with a chance to go ahead …
Paul George pic.twitter.com/vwkFYb52OC— ⓂarcusD2.0 (@_MarcusD2_) April 3, 2017
… but split his free throws, tying the score at 114. Another Cavs inbound mishap later, and we were headed to double-OT.
George was absolutely sensational in the second overtime period, scoring 13 points in five minutes on an array of off-the-bounce pull-ups and deep bombs to keep the flagging Pacers afloat, with Love and James answering in kind:
Paul George spins on LeBron and hits the elbow jumper for his 40th point of the night https://t.co/BINpx36ZPn #NBA— All Ball (@allballapp) April 3, 2017
In the final minute, though, LeBron’s All-Star running buddies came through, leaving George — and, to be fair, Miles, who poured in 27 points on 8-for-13 shooting (5-for-9 from deep) with six rebounds and two assists in 34 minutes off the Pacers bench — a couple of buckets short, in keeping with Indy’s long-running struggles to muster much offense when George is off the floor:
Pacers + Cavs played 58 minutes. Paul George was +15 in 48 minutes. Cavs won by 5.The Pacers were -20 in 10 minutes without Paul George.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 3, 2017
Love finished with 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting with 12 rebounds in 38 minutes, while Irving added 23 (albeit on 5-for-20 shooting) to go with seven assists for the Cavs, who have won two straight to improve to 49-27 and stay within a half-game of the Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The two teams are slated for a mammoth showdown in Boston on Wednesday night. The Celtics will be coming off a blowout win at MSG in which four of their starters didn’t play in the fourth quarter, while the Cavs will follow Sunday’s double-OT marathon by hosting the Orlando Magic on Tuesday before flying right to Massachusetts:
This was most mins LeBron has ever played in reg season game in April.Game at Boston is 2nd night of B2B. Cavs 1-9 on road on 0 days rest.
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) April 3, 2017
In spite of George’s efforts, the Pacers fell to 37-40 and sit in ninth place in the East, even on record with the No. 8 Miami Heat, but behind them due to Miami owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. Indiana has five games remaining, including three against Eastern playoff teams — the red-hot Toronto Raptors, the “nobody wants to play us right now” Milwaukee Bucks and an Atlanta Hawks team that, like, Indy, could be fighting for its playoff life in the final days of the season.
The Pacers need to take care of business and get some help down the stretch to climb back up the standings and into the playoff picture. With any luck, they’ll make it in and find themselves across from LeBron and the Cavs in Round 1. After Sunday’s barnburner, I think I could be persuaded to watch LeBron and PG renew their postseason acquaintances in two weeks’ time.