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National Columnist

Game 7 winners or not, sky's the limit for young, polished Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS -- We're doing it again, the same thing we did during the 2011 NBA Finals. We're focusing on the Miami Heat because they're magnetic in an infuriating and revolting way, like a really big bug splatter on your clean windshield. Try not to dwell on it. Really. Try.

Meanwhile the Indiana Pacers are still here, the team playing the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. You know. The other team. Them.

Reminds me of the 2011 NBA Finals when LeBron was shrinking and Dwyane Wade was mocking Dirk Nowitzki for being sick and nationally the story was: The Miami Heat are losing this series! And not not that the Dallas Mavericks were winning it.

Which brings me to this year, and these Eastern Conference finals, and the more laudable team, if not the more repulsively interesting team. This is not a prediction the Pacers will win Game 7 on Monday night. That's not what I meant by laudable, and anyway, I'm out of the prediction business. After my own bug splatter of a prediction about the Heat earlier this postseason, I predict this is my final prediction: I'm done predicting games, because I'm lousy at it.

I'm also lousy at taking my eyes off the Heat, because you know what? That bug splatter is gross. Look at it, all yellow and orange and giant, with Wade passive-aggressively blaming his struggles on LeBron and with Chris Bosh passive-aggressively blaming his struggles on his role and with Chris Andersen making like a high school punk and shoving Tyler Hansbrough and then mean-mugging him because this is hard, y'all, this right here is hard and you don't want none of it.

Gag me. And yet there I was on Saturday night after Game 6, writing about the losing team. Writing about the disappearance of Bosh and the petulance of Wade, while colleague Ken Berger was writing about LeBron James.

The Pacers won Game 6 and both of us wrote about the Heat. Because that bug splatter ... wow. Ever seen something so disgusting?

Meanwhile, the Pacers. The Pacers. They're coming, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. Again, that's not a prediction for Game 7. Maybe it's the final game of the season for the Pacers. Maybe not. Whatever the case, this is a franchise that will be better tomorrow than it is today, and today you might notice this franchise is about to play Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.

Wait until next year, when Danny Granger returns from the knee injury that sidelined him for most of the season. You remember Granger, right? The Pacers' best player?

He's not anymore. Even when he returns and gets back into full Danny Granger mode, he won't be better than Pacers wing Paul George, who has emerged this postseason -- alongside the Warriors' Stephen Curry -- as the next NBA superstar. George is 6-foot-8 and skilled, able to average 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists while making at least 100 3-pointers. Only two other NBA players reached those benchmarks this season: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Add George's 1.8 steals per game, and exactly one player in the NBA reached those benchmarks: Paul George.

Best player in the league? No, of course not. But he's one of them, and here's something Roy Hibbert said after Game 6, something smart that got lost amid all the stupid stuff he said after Game 6:

"He's the future," Hibbert said of George. "I mean, I think he has a chance to be MVP of this league next year."

Could be. George's points, rebounds and assists have gone up each year. So have his 3-pointers made. He's 23 years old. You think the Paul George we're seeing now, the one playing LeBron James as well as humanly possible, has reached his peak? Not even close.

Same goes for Roy Hibbert, by the way. He's a little older than George -- Hibbert is 26 -- but he's maturing at a different speed, at a slower pace, than most players. That's because of his size. When he was a freshman at Georgetown, the 7-2 Hibbert was difficult to watch because he was so uncoordinated. Now he is more fluid and more confident, and while that press conference Saturday night was a regrettable aftershock of his growing confidence, the fact is Roy Hibbert has only recently realized how good he can be. He's close to his ceiling, but he's not there yet.

And what about Lance Stephenson? Does anybody have any idea how good this guy can be? Remember, he played just one season of college at Cincinnati, where coach Mick Cronin scraped off some of the residual entitlement from Stephenson's days as a schoolboy legend in New York City. The Pacers appear to have filed away the rest of it, and what's left is a 6-5, 210-pound raw talent who asks to defend LeBron James and who has giant hands and explosion and a game that has improved as much as anyone's in the last two years. A year ago Stephenson was 4 for 30 on 3-point shots (13.3 percent). This season he has gone 62 for 188 (33 percent). What does he shoot next season?

When he's 23 years old?

Assuming the Pacers can squeeze all four under the salary cap next season, nobody in the NBA would have a better core of four young players than Hibbert, Granger, George and Stephenson. And don't forget pending free agent David West, who has several years left at age 32 and is likely to spend them with the Pacers, and improving point guard George Hill, whose 14.2 ppg and 4.9 apg were career highs. He's 26. You think his best basketball is behind him?

The Pacers are coming, man. They're coming, and once they fully arrive they'll be here for years. That bug splatter? It wipes off easily enough. It'll be gone before you know it.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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