INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pacers were up two games to one on Miami right around this time last year in the playoffs. We say this only because if they get that same opportunity again in another few weeks, might the final outcome be a lot more suspenseful, if not completely different?
Instead of pinching themselves -- Oh wow, we're actually leading LeBron James! -- might the Pacers rise up in the Eastern Conference finals and punch the Heat instead?
These are not your 2012 Pacers, folks. This team has a strut, a sharper sense of purpose, a feeling that anything is possible, and it's a team bringing a lot more Paul George now as opposed to then. No one in the East has put together a more complete post-season against better competition with fewer question marks than Indiana. That's right. No team in the East. Not even you-know-who.
They laid another brick in that argument Tuesday with a Game 4 thrashing of the reeling Knicks, who have that wait-til-next-year glassy look about themselves. Carmelo Anthony and those whose main purpose is to pass him the ball -- his teammates, meaning -- are on full crumble right now. The Pacers are up 3-1 in a series that's getting further away from the Knicks by the New York minute. All season long, the Knicks and Pacers executed a back-and-forth about which team in the East would earn the right to carry the Heat's bags, and it looks like we have a winner. Although, the more you see them, the more you understand that these are the Pacers, not the porters.
"Our focus is where it needs to be," said forward David West. "Every guy on this team, to a man, is doing his job."
We can begin with George, the half-man, half-Beatle and all-around complete player. He's been mostly a nightmare for the Knicks. In Game 4 he didn't shoot particularly well, and yet he was the best player on the floor and it wasn't even close. You see, that's the thing about George. That's why he was an All-Star this year and will get that honor multiple times in the future. When the shot's not falling, he doesn't turn invisible. As opposed to, for instance, Anthony, who's mostly about scoring. If you're starting a team right now, who are you taking? The player who needs and takes about one-fourth of his team's shots? Or the player who crashes the glass, comes up with loose balls, finds teammates and also manages to score?
George is not a great player. Not yet. Like the rest of the Pacers, he sometimes gets sloppy. Makes mental errors. Spaces out. But those are becoming more rare nowadays as he matures into a terrific young player and one of the game's future stars.
George made only six of 19 shots Tuesday. In three of the four games in this series, he has made fewer than half his shots. But George, who's not the biggest or strongest player on the floor, grabbed 14 rebounds. And he led the Pacers with seven assists. And he swatted a pair of shots. And above all, he guarded Anthony most of the game. Nobody had a greater responsibility on a per-minute basis than George, who had pressure to produce on both ends, and nobody did more with their time, either.
As for Melo, he needed 23 shots to get 24 points, and none did much damage. In a fit of frustration, he reached and committed his sixth and final foul on purpose. Yes, for Melo, it's hard being the No. 2 player on the floor in a game where there's no LeBron.
"Paul's just a great defender," said West. "He's hungry for the challenge, and Melo is the best one-on-one player in the league."
It's not just George. The Pacers shot only 40 percent and still won the game. You can only do that with defense, and Indiana once again grabbed the Knicks by the neck. Melo forced shots because he had no consistent help. J.R. Smith missed 15 of 22. Iman Shumpert, who had his knee checked out hours before the game, missed all six of his shots and was yanked early. The Knicks made only 35 percent and Melo said: "Our offense has looked like [crap]."
Well, he didn't really use the word "crap." But your next guess is correct.
"They've been playing defense like this all year," said the Knicks' Kenyon Martin. "They force you to make tough shots."
The beauty of the Pacers is someone, in addition to George, will surface with a strong effort. For the last few games it was Roy Hibbert, who suddenly started executing pivot moves in the paint without becoming tangled. In Game 4 it was George Hill with 26 points. And everyone chipped in on D.
Also, the Pacers don't whine about who's taking how many shots and getting how many minutes and whatnot. They exterminated that disease over the summer by dumping unhappy point guard Darren Collison and handing the keys to Hill. Just a few days ago, Tyson Chandler spoke openly about the Knicks' ball movement and took a veiled shot at Anthony. There's no such discontent on the Pacers.
"We have a bona fide superstar in the making but we still play like a team," said Hibbert. "We look for each other and take care of each other. We don't know any other way."
They've had two poor games in the playoffs, one in the first round in Atlanta, a dungeon of hell for some reason for Indiana; and then a Game 2 wipeout at the Garden. Otherwise, they've been fairly solid and could be getting better.
Can we say the same about Miami? Not sure about that. The Heat still haven't played a truly quality team in the playoffs, getting the overmatched Bucks in the first round and then a patched-together Bulls team. So they haven't been tested yet. Plus, the elephant in the room is Dwyane Wade and his ailing knee. If he limps off the floor once more, as he did Monday, then Miami could suddenly have the same problem as Oklahoma City, one superstar trying to do the heavy lifting and a team trying to reinvent itself on the fly.
In that situation, wouldn't they be ripe for an upset against an Indiana team that suddenly believes in itself?
Twelve months after that 2-1 lead over Miami, George still remembers how it all ended. Indiana didn't win another game. LeBron went nuts and scored 40 points with 18 rebounds and nine assists to even the series, Lance Stephenson got decked for giving LeBron the choke sign earlier and the Pacers went out weakly. George guarded Wade and got smoked when Wade dropped 41 in the clincher. It was a brutal final three games for Indy. Deep down, the Pacers didn't believe they could beat Miami, and it showed. George was still riding shotgun to Danny Granger then. He was too young and unprepared to deal with the urgency thrown his way. When the Pacers took a lead, and when Miami responded emphatically, George didn't know what hit him.
"We had a chance to take out a dominant team and didn't do that," George said. "It left a bitter taste in my mouth."
But now? What happens after a team loses Granger for the year, wins the division anyway, reaches the second round and takes a commanding lead over the higher-seeded Knicks? Are they really ready to see the Heat again and deal with the memory of a complete collapse a year ago?
"I still have that experience in the back of my mind. If we were to get another chance, I'd like that. We'd be happy with that matchup."