MIAMI -- The ball fell through the net and Paul George was the first to grab it. He bounced it hard with both hands as the noise blew up all around him at his expense. Back and forth he went against LeBron James. In the end he almost stole Game 1 of the Eastern conference final. Almost.
"I grabbed him after the game and told him to quickly forget about the last play," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said of his conversation with George after the Pacers' 103-102 overtime loss at the buzzer to James and the defending champion Heat. "He's a third-year player and he's playing the best player in the world, someone who is going to go down as arguably one of the best players in the history of the game. He's playing him toe-to-toe and just competing his tail off and doing a great job.''
And yet the last play was everything. The last play marked off the difference between where James himself stood two or three or four years ago and where he stands today. James would finish with the ninth postseason triple-double of his career (30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds with three blocks) but of far more importance was the distance he created against George just before the buzzer.
"I slipped up," George said. "I just slipped up at the end."
Finishing his first year as an All-Star, the question entering this round was whether the 23-year-old George could make the big plays for his team that are now made so routinely by James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen for theirs. The Pacers opened this game, to no one's surprise, by establishing their strengths around the basket. At the half, David West and Roy Hibbert were a combined 13-of-21 for 29 points, while George was a negligible 1-of-4 -- even though a spot of early foul trouble forced James off the floor for an extended stretch and helped keep him scoreless for the last 17 minutes going into halftime.
Neither team extended its lead beyond seven points as the game shifted to an entirely different shape. The balanced scoring of Miami's opening quarters gave way to James seizing command while playing the entire second half and overtime. "This may be what it takes to beat this team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James' triple-double domination, as if his star's ability to execute across the board can now be summoned by command. Which it probably can.
George saw what James was doing and he replied in kind. All but two of George's 27 points were scored after the half. But he was never in command in the way James appears to be now. George was learning on the fly and in the final half-minute of regulation he looked as if he might be overwhelmed. Desperate for an equalizing basket, he missed a jumper that was swiped at by Wade from behind, then regained possession only to inexplicably lose control as he drove into the lane. The ball squirted from his hands as if he didn't know what to do with it.
But that turned out to be a premature conclusion drawn of a young star who has come along so fast. Having regained possession after a missed free throw by Allen, the Pacers were struggling to run a play as the Heat pressured them out beyond the three-point line. George was 32 feet from the rim when he went up with a shot, his feet kicking like the tail of a salmon jumping against a dam. "Once it left his hands it looked like he shot it from the free throw line," Spoelstra said.
Indeed, the three-pointer looked like the free throws George would swish at the end of overtime, one after another after another, after he was fouled at the end of another wild sequence -- a near turnover by Indiana, a recovery, another deep three by George. And this time there was a whistle. Wade had fouled out. With 2.2 seconds left George made all three free throws to give his Pacers a one-point lead on the road against a team they really should have no business beating.
Two timeouts later, George figured the ball would be going to James. On Miami's previous possession, James had exploited a switch to drive past George Hill for a layup with 10.8 seconds left to give Miami a brief two-point lead. For that play, and for this one, too, Vogel chose to keep the 7-foot-2 Hibbert on the bench, wary his presence around the rim would free Bosh to spot up from the corner. "Obviously with the way it worked out, it would have been better to have Roy in the game," Vogel said. "I would say we'll probably have him in next time."
Just as the play was beginning, George saw Allen sprinting by and it distracted him. "It kind of threw me off a little bit," he said. James burst away from the basket to receive the inbounds pass and then just as quickly he whiplashed back the other way back toward the basket. George appeared to be caught off guard by both moves. The first surprise was acceptable. The second was all James needed to punish him.
While George was trying to grow into this new end-of-the-game role, James knew what he was doing. "I knew I had enough time to get to the rim," James said. "Two-plus seconds is plenty of time. I only need one dribble to get to the rim.
"I peeked over my left shoulder. I [saw] Paul George was a little out of place. So I just took off. I knew I had enough time to do either -- I could either get to the rim, or I could get one dribble in and get up a jumper or a shot. So I [saw] him leaning a little bit. Just a quick second. I just took off."
The ball banked off the glass and was being swallowed by the throat of the net when the buzzer sounded and the backboard lit up and the building filled with noisy joy.
"I was up too close on him," George said. "You have to make him shoot a jumper. That's what we wanted. We wanted LeBron to shoot a jumper right there."
How many times over the years had James been second-guessing himself and been second-guessed by others? It was as if he was an entirely different person now. When it was all done, he acted as if he expected to be the winner all along. "I mean, I made a layup," he said. "I've been doing that since I was eight-years old."
Of course, it wasn't as easy as that. It didn't used to be easy for him and it wasn't going to be easy now for his young victim.
"Talking about having an opportunity to take the first game," George said. "Be in the lead of the series. And not being able to do it because of a last possession. That one hurts. It hurts."
This is how the truths are passed down from champions to their challengers. Do unto others as was done to you. These lessons are passed down cruelly.