CLEVELAND — Their fierce on-the-floor rivalry blossomed into a strong friendship that will be put on hold.
LeBron James and Paul George are about to face off again in the NBA playoffs.
“We have a job to do,” George said.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, whose path through the Eastern Conference and a third straight NBA Finals appearance may not be the slam dunk once believed, begin defense of their title Saturday in the first round against the Indiana Pacers. The James-George matchup will attract TV cameras and likely set the tone for the series.
They’ve previously squared off in the postseason when James was with the Miami Heat and before George suffered a horrific leg injury that threatened his career. But George has not only bounced back, the star forward said he’s been aiming for a shot at the champions.
“It’s who I’ve wanted to match up against,” he said.
George got his wish, and if he and the seventh-seeded Pacers can shock the Cavs, it would add another chapter to his incredible comeback story.
Less than three years ago, his future was in doubt after a gruesome compound fracture while playing in a USA Basketball scrimmage. There were many who doubted George would ever be the same player, but he came back, won an Olympic gold medal and set his sights on greater glory.
James has always respected George, and his appreciation for him only grew during his fight for redemption.
“Anybody can be great in the form of comfort,” said James, 3-0 vs. George in the playoffs. “But when things don’t go your way and adversity hits, how can you get back to the point that nobody thinks you can get back to? There were a lot of people saying he would never get back to what he was before and doing the things that he was before. It’s great to see as a competitor and as a friend. He someone that I’ve had a lot of great playoff series with and great conversations with, to see him back to here he needs to be.”
George said James’ support helped him pull through the months following his injury.
“Definitely we’ve gotten closer,” George said Friday before the Pacers left Indianapolis. “He almost views me as an inspiration by coming back, really, and I’ve leaned on him to get back to this level.”
In their most recent matchup, James and George put on a brilliant show that might be hard to top.
Matching each other dunk for dunk and jumper for jumper, George scored 43 points with nine rebounds and nine assists, while James scored 41 with 16 rebounds and 11 assists in Cleveland’s 135-130 win in double overtime on April 2.
Like James, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue admires George’s willpower and is thrilled he’s back to being himself and in the playoffs.
“It’s great to see,” Lue said. “I wish it wasn’t against us.”
Here are some other things to watch as the Pacers and Cavaliers meet in the postseason for the first time since 1998:
CAVS’ CHEMISTRY: Cleveland’s players shared a tight bond during last year’s postseason, and many of them credited that brotherhood for helping them win a title.
Because of injuries and new players, this group isn’t as close, but the Cavs are hoping that changes in the weeks ahead.
“We’ve got to go out there and play hard on both sides of the ball,” forward Kevin Love said. “If we do that, get our fans involved, get the city really behind us again, I think it could be (as good as 2016). Last year was magical for us. We’re hoping to create the same sort of feeling.”
PACING THEMSELVES: Indiana understands playoff basketball, and not just because it has been to the postseason six of the last seven years.
For the Pacers, the high-stakes games started two weeks ago when it looked like they might miss out on the postseason. But after Lance Stephenson returned — he made his debut against the Cavs — the Pacers reeled off five straight wins and head into Saturday as the hottest team in the East.
INJURY UPDATE: The Cavaliers are as healthy as they’ve been in weeks. The Pacers are getting closer to full strength.
Indiana coach Nate McMillan expects starting point guard Jeff Teague to play after spraining his left ankle late in Wednesday’s game.
Also, McMillan said slam dunk champion Glenn Robinson III and center Al Jefferson could return sometime during the series. Jefferson hasn’t played since spraining his left ankle March 26. Robinson has been out with a strained left calf since March 22.