There are 4:35 left in the second quarter of Game 2 of Indiana and Cleveland's first-round playoff series, and the Pacers trail the Cavaliers 56-45. A precipitous switch isolates Channing Frye onto Paul George, who, with possession, is all but licking his chops.
He dribbles right, crosses to his left, hesitates and catapults into a straight-line drive to the rim and bulldozes into Kevin Love, whose doomed attempt at taking a charge not only grants George two free throws, but perhaps makes him the first victim of a poster dunk that doesn't connect. Love crashes onto his back, with George's legs splayed over him.
George tried to ratchet off that hammer a mere quarter after dunking in Tristan Thompson's grill, and you could see why he would want to strike fear into the hearts of the Cavs' big men. A player who has historically been criticized for offensive passivity could find use, during a must-win game, in cultivating an air of aggression.
But you can also imagine George -- whose tussles with LeBron James used to arrive later in the playoffs, carrying genuine weight -- attempting to take reality to task; trying to dunk all over the futility of his situation.
George is a bona fide All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, one of the best two-way players in the NBA. He is a 6-foot-9 forward in his primed. These days, he is also noticeably mad.
Maybe he was thinking about how George Hill, the point guard Indiana traded for Jeff Teague, wouldn't be getting smashed on screens and abused off the dribble. Or maybe he was thinking about Frank Vogel, the well-respected coach who morphed Indiana into a smash-mouth contender and shaped George into the player he is today, who was fired because he didn't fit in Larry Bird's vision of a high-octane, offensive-minded team, only to be replaced by Nate McMillan, a head coach who had never coached a fast-paced squad. George was then handed offseason acquisitions like Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin, who had never been accused of racing up the court or spacing the floor. Maybe George was thinking about how, after this brilliantly concocted formula didn't pan out as anticipated, it was his name in the trade deadline rumor mill.
Maybe George was thinking about the heartbreaking finish to Game 1 on Saturday, when, after the Pacers pulled within a point of the Cavs, C.J. Miles clanked a mid-range jumper and Cleveland escaped with a victory. George could have been thinking about how, on the second-to-last possession of the game after Cleveland telegraphed the fact LeBron would be leaving his man, Lance Stephenson, to double-team George, McMillan didn't opt to change tack, or even substitute Stephenson for a shooter.
"In situations like that, I gotta get the last shot," George told reporters after the game was over. "I was asking for it. CJ took it upon himself."
Then, after Game 2, it was Stephenson that drew George's ire. Even though the veteran guard (who infamously once blew in LeBron's ear during a playoff game three years ago when James was with the Heat) had a stellar Game 1, Stephenson clearly grew frustrated in a key third quarter sequence against the Cavs on Monday, committing unnecessary fouls and letting Cleveland get in his head.
"He's got to learn to control himself," George told the press room. "He's got to learn to just be in the moment. Lance, in our locker room, is looked upon as a leader. His body language has to improve. Lance is an emotional guy. A lot of it is just his heart and his competitiveness, but he's just got to channel that, and put it towards making effort plays on the court."
Of course, George is looked upon as a leader as well. And airing grievances to the media with such regularity generally destroys morale. In a fragile locker room, perhaps it's not the best idea to choose the middle of a playoff series as the time to start telling it like it is.
On the other hand, you can see where he's coming from.
Yes, George is well compensated, with a five-year, $91.5-million contract. And yes, his first deal under the new salary cap projects to be massive. But athletes who have reached George's echelon don't consider their profession through security alone. The bottom line is wins and losses, and in Game 2, George played with a combined passion and anger of a man clinging desperately to a dream that, at this point, even he must know is dead.