MIAMI -- The moment that finally won the game, the one that sent the Eastern Conference finals careening downhill on this joy ride, happened at the very end. Get used to that.
But the moment that will come to define whatever rollicking events await us happened much earlier. At the end of the third quarter, moments after Paul George had beaten James off the dribble and sent Chris "Birdman" Andersen fluttering for cover with a vicious dunk, James drove on George and unleashed a quarter-closing dagger from well beyond the 3-point line.
After the horn, James followed George the other way, extended his hand and said, “Hey.” They connected, and James said, “I got you back, young fella.”
And with that, James -- the locomotive, the NBA's most feared, destructive and celestial force -- had welcomed his counterpart to the East finals.
And, to the club.
“That was a moment for me that I’ll always remember,” George was saying at his locker after the Pacers beat the Heat 97-93 on Friday night to even the best-of-7 series at a game apiece. “I’m ready for the challenge. He’s ready for the challenge. It’s going to be a fun series.”
The series has buoyancy, has a wonderful plotline oozing with intrigue, because the Pacers not only controlled most of the game but the end of it, too. Bracing for LeBron’s wrath again with a two-point lead in the final minute, the Pacers left Roy Hibbert in the game this time and denied James -- not once, but twice.
With James coming off a screen in the middle of the floor, David West deflected and intercepted James’ pass for Ray Allen with 42 seconds left. Facing the same predicament with 17.6 seconds remaining, George played off James this time after getting burned for that layup at the end of Game 1. Hibbert, on the floor instead of on the bench as Frank Vogel had promised, contained his drive and forced James to put on the brakes as he turned the corner toward the basket.
West got his stubborn hand in the passing lane again, and the ball landed in the eager grasp of George Hill to send the series to Indiana for Game 3 tied 1-1.
“Once we saw Roy had him under control, it was just getting back out to shooters, watching his eyes and trying to be in the passing lane,” West said. “… We did what we drill every day.”
That endless, consistent, unwavering work collided with the devastation of the Game 1 loss and erased it in that moment. It lifted the Pacers back into this series, back to a place they are far more prepared for now than they were a year ago when they won Game 2 of the conference semifinals in Miami.
“We’ve been through this before as a group,” West said. “… We feel like we’re here for a reason. We’re going to compete our butts off every single game, every single possession.”
That work ethic, that consistency of approach and belief, will never change for these Pacers, a team that arrived in Miami this week with no anointed superstar and supposedly no chance to beat the Heat and now leaves South Florida with both.
“I could get used to this stage,” George said. “Hopefully, there’s a lot more in my career.”
There will be; we’re watching it happen, right before our widened, awakened eyes.
It was George who’d forced overtime in Game 1 with that off-balance 30-footer, and it was George who’d given the Pacers that fleeting one-point lead at the end of overtime on Wednesday night with three free throws. Now it was George going head-to-head again with James -- staying in front of him on the defensive end, exchanging highlights and a handshake with him at the end of the third quarter and earning the respect of the best player on the planet.
It was an enduring moment that will outlive these playoffs, the great James embracing the competition from a 23-year-old who was not backing down.
“We’re just two guys trying to do what it takes to help our team win,” James said. “He’s really good. He’s going to be a great one.”
Then, James said, “I love competition. I try to step up to the challenge and try to be there for my team as well.”
James has seen before how much George enjoys a good test of talent and wills. When George was named to the USA Select team leading up to the London Olympics, he was literally joining a group of sacrificial lambs assembled to practice against the U.S. Olympic team in training camp in Las Vegas.
“We were literally practice dummies,” George said. “Everybody was like, ‘You understand what they’re doing to us, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, so?’ It was fun for me because I want to be great.”
George didn’t know what he didn’t know, and evidently didn’t care. It’s the best combination. He had to guard them all those USA practices -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and on down the list. He loved the challenge, just reveled in it, and it stayed with him -- shaped him -- for the moment that has found him.
“For me,” George was saying now, “that was like a front-row seat [for] how to be the best player in this league. I loved guarding those guys because I love competing.”
Now he was locked up in a superstar duel with the competitive force of our time and loving it. And if the rest of us were slow to recognize it, if we couldn’t view Paul George through that prism of greatness in the making, then James paid him the ultimate respect by making sure we saw him do it.
“He understands that I’m going to compete with him,” George said. “… I think he understands that it’s going to be a battle.”