LeBron's greatest rival? Not so much


MIAMI -- LeBron James' recall and mental cataloging are as honed as his midrange jumper, so it's rare that he's taken aback when presented with a factoid about his career.

But James' eyebrows shot up when he was told that Paul George is now second only to longtime rival Paul Pierce in the number of postseason games facing James. The Indiana Pacers' George has played 16 playoff games against James and the Miami Heat, defending him nearly every minute over the past three years, with more on the way.

"That's surprising," James said.

It's surprising because this budding rivalry has not matured in this year's Eastern Conference finals. Actually, James has been more focused on Lance Stephenson than George, exchanging trash talk and churning up some old bad blood between him and the feisty guard.

It's as if George has taken a backseat, which is a reason the Pacers are behind 2-1 in the series going into Game 4. Without George acting as a legitimate foil to James, Indiana's hopes in this series are dimmed just as James' awareness of him is.

In last year's conference finals, James and George staged a fantastic duel over seven games that appeared to be the start of something special. James was on George down the stretch of every game, and George exhausted himself working on James throughout.

In Game 1, for example, George nailed a 30-foot 3-pointer over James with less than a second left in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Then James shook George and won the game with a layup at the overtime buzzer.

In Game 2, George scored 22 points and helped force James into two late-game turnovers that allowed the Pacers to even the series.

In a crucial Game 5, George delivered 27 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against James' 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

In Game 6, George carried his team to a win with 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists to edge James' 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

These were big-time showdowns, some of the best of James' playoff career. They kept coming with George answering James' brute strength with some graceful moves and a few athletic dunks that were among the glossiest highlights of the 2013 postseason.

Ultimately, James was better. So were the Heat, as they advanced in seven games, partially because George ran out of gas in the final game as James thoroughly outplayed him. But it was beyond a respectable showing, and George had youth on his side and a growing body of experience. It was a major reason the Pacers signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract extension after the season.

So far in this series, there's been none of that performance. George has been blanketing James and has forced some turnovers, but generally James has gotten what he's wanted. It hasn't played out that way at the other end, where the Heat are frequently comfortable putting Ray Allen on George in fourth quarters. George is just 9-of-29 shooting over the past two games and has done very little that is meaningful or memorable. James has noticed.

"If I don't follow my keys, he'll score on me," James said. "I can't take a possession off against him, you can't have lapse."

That's a rather lukewarm commentary. James has offered plenty of praise of George over the past year, calling him "an unbelievable talent" just this week. But he's apparently a long way from calling George a rival, which is not what was expected after they laid the groundwork for last season's back-and-forth.

Earlier this year, George might have diminished himself in James' eyes when he revealed that he yearned to spend time with James in the summer being mentored.

"It would be great to be able to pick his brain, pick his mind and just talk about the game," George said in an interview in March. "I wish someday we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to -- not during the season because I'm too competitive during the season -- but maybe in the summertime."

James was surprised about that, too. Although he often enjoys mentoring younger players and looks for workout partners in the summer -- meeting up with Kevin Durant several times in the past -- James seemed taken aback at George's request, then was somewhat flippant about it.

"Pick my brain like Hannibal Lecter?" James said at the time. "Sure, everyone knows I have an open-door policy."

George has played into that role so far in this series, acting more meek than assertive when getting another chance to exert his will and prove he's up to the task of knocking off James in the postseason, as he had hinted at last year. After the Game 3 loss in which George was a disappointing nonfactor, Pacers coach Frank Vogel lamented that his team was acting like the little brother to the Heat's big brother.

George is not yet the player James is; this is not debatable. Perhaps he will never be. But for the Pacers to have a chance at this point -- to challenge the big brother, to use Vogel's effective metaphor -- they badly need the All-Star presence he demonstrated last year, when they fought James much more tightly, so they can extend the series.

This point has been made to him, and heading into Game 4, he's making some vows.

"I got to be a leader, I want to be a leader for this group going forward," George said. "So if that's what it takes to get my team going, then I'll do so. I do feel like I can bring it to another level as far as being more aggressive, and I will in Game 4."