The next great rivalry
Paul George has rapidly developed into a serious challenger to LeBron James
MIAMI -- Paul George will never forget that moment in 2009 when, as a skinny 19-year-old, he found himself guarding the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player. Not in a video game, in a real-life pickup game.
Every year, LeBron James hosts the top high school players in the country at a Nike-sponsored camp. Many top college players are also there as "counselors." In reality, it's a recruitment fest for college coaches and a chance for Nike to develop ties with talent they one day might try to hire as endorsers.
One of the highlights every year, both for the few spectators allowed in and certainly the young men themselves, happens when James suits up and takes on the teenagers in roving pickup games. It's common that he'll bring some NBA friends to those games, including, at times, fellow superstar Chris Paul.
It's something to see, teenagers who know they're talented and are already into full coddle by the national machine, sometimes turning pale when they suddenly find themselves defending a James-Paul pick-and-roll.
After a good freshman season at Fresno State, George was invited to the camp. Once there, he was given the wave over to the court on which James was playing.
"I like challenges, and it was a challenge," George said. "It was my first time playing against someone of his nature. It was fun. I took a lot away from it."
There was no way either of them realized back then that this was going to be the first of many showdowns.
And there will indeed be many, because, even if it might not be getting the proper attention now, James versus George is almost assured to be the newest great rivalry in the NBA.
James and George have already staged two fantastic mini-dramas in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. They've traded clutch shots, jaw-dropping feats of athleticism and long-range bomb shots.
After George's dunk heard round the world over the victimized Chris Andersen Friday night in the Pacers' Game 2 win, James answered with a 30-footer over the top of his new rival. The two then slapped hands at center court.
"He said, 'I got you back young fella,'" George said.
Get ready, this is going to be a long game of attempts at one-upmanship.
"He's going to be a great one. I thought he had some unbelievable talent back [in 2009] when I met him. He went to a school that no one really paid attention to. But I'm one of those guys who stays up late at night and watches those games. I knew him."" -- LeBron James on Paul George
At age 28 and in his prime after winning his fourth MVP, James isn't going anywhere. At age 23 and coming off his first-ever All-Star season and first appearance on the All-NBA team, neither is George. They are already playing their second playoff series against each other, and both of their teams have aspirations of being back playing deep into the playoffs for the foreseeable future.
"He's going to be a great one," James said. "I thought he had some unbelievable talent back [in 2009] when I met him. He went to a school that no one really paid attention to. But I'm one of those guys who stays up late at night and watches those games. I knew him."
One of the reasons this matchup has so much potential is because of the volume of the action. Unlike with James' more universally established young rival Kevin Durant, George plays in James' conference. They are assured of more meetings. And, unlike Durant, George is guarding James for 40 minutes a game, a task virtually no one else in the league tries to take on.
James moves around defensively, but he will spend more and more time on George as the young swingman develops his offensive game, which is still his weakness.
This isn't James-Durant yet, but you're fooling yourself if you don't see the great potential in how they line up against each other.
"He's improving every time I see him play," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Every time I see him, he looks taller. He has a unique skill set for his size."
In Game 1, they traded off making huge plays for their teams in the fourth quarter and overtime. George had a brilliant three-point play, on which he drove right through James, then followed it up with a clutch 3-pointer over him at the end of regulation to force overtime.
James got him back by securing a crucial rebound in overtime by out-leaping George. Then, in one of the biggest plays this postseason, James burned George on the game's final play by driving past him to the rim for the game-winning layup at the buzzer. George had taken a bad angle and James crushed the error, leaving George to think about the mistake until after 4 a.m. that night.
Game 2 saw James put forth a signature playoff performance with 36 points, but it was George's 22 points -- including that dunk -- that changed the game's momentum. He also learned from his mistake and stayed in front of James on the final two possessions to force him to give up the ball.
"This is what you dream of," George said. "Playing against LeBron in games like this deep in the playoffs."
James got the better of George in their first meeting in the playoffs last season. Though George split the defensive duties with Danny Granger, when James and Dwyane Wade went on a three-game scoring binge to win last year's second-round series, plenty of it came at the expense of the still-learning George. The Pacers' young star played a lot of minutes then but rarely affected the outcome of the games. Frankly, he was rather forgettable.
But George's rapid improvement really caught James' eye a few months later in Shanghai, during workouts and exhibitions on a Nike promotional tour. It was not a surprise to the Heat star that George ended up winning the NBA Most Improved Player award.
Now, George has James' full attention.
"His maturity and his game have definitely risen in just one year," James said. "His teammates have a lot of confidence in him, and he has a lot of confidence in himself.
What makes this budding rivalry so intriguing is how much George and James are alike. They're both listed at 6-foot-8 but are probably 6-foot-9, or perhaps even taller in George's case. They both have terrific quickness and versatility defensively. They both are their team's leading scorers and best passers.
They're both strong rebounders. That they're the only two players in the East to have a triple-double in the postseason says it all. It just has the look and feel that it's the start of something.
"The more I guard him, the more I'll understand his game," George said. "With LeBron, you've got to be on your toes."
George is not as dynamic an offensive player as James at this point. While James has taken leaps in his shooting and overall efficiency in recent seasons, George struggles at times with shot selection and is known to battle turnover problems.
Then again, Friday was James' 24th career conference finals game. It was George's second. They don't compete totally on an equal footing from a skill development or experience standpoint.
At least not yet.
"I've got a lot of potential left," George said. "I'm 23 with ambitions of being great in this league, and I won't stop until I get there."
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