By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - There is a new closer on the NBA scene and the Indiana Pacers hope that emerging finisher Paul George will enable the team to take the next step and unseat the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
George, 23, was named Most Improved Player of the 2012-13 campaign and believes he has progressed even more this season for the 10-1 Pacers, who forced Miami to a decisive seventh game in last season's Eastern Conference Finals.
The quick, 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12.1 points after being made a starter in his second year when the Pacers reached the conference semi-finals, and added more than five points a game to that regular season average last season.
So far this season George is averaging 24.4 points, armed with burgeoning confidence after a hard-working offseason spent preparing for his new role.
"I know what player I can be," George told reporters after scoring a game-high 35 points in Indiana's 103-96 comeback win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
"I know that I can be at an elite level, be a top player in this league. It's just me believing in myself.
"I am more improved. I got completely better than the player last year. Might be possible to win (most improved) again," he added with a chuckle.
George, a defensive force who also had the duty of covering New York high scorer Carmelo Anthony in the victory, is on a fast-track to stardom in the eyes of Indiana coach Frank Vogel.
"Even as he's become sort of our go-to guy, he's still very new at crunch time moments for us," Vogel said after the Knicks game. "I think he showed another step to be able to make big plays at crunch time in the last minute, two minutes in the game. The guy's got big guts.
"We talked the end of last year about increasing it. He came in and improved, shot over 50 percent in the preseason and seemed to do it effortlessly.
"I said 'Look, we're going to start running all of our stuff through you. You're going to become the guy' He's earning it."
George took the challenge seriously.
The 10th pick of the 2010 NBA Draft out of California State University, Fresno, worked with a ball-handling coach and a shooting coach in strenuous training in Los Angeles.
"I knew the burden that was coming on my shoulders," said George, who made the All-Star game last season and was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team. "I needed to work on some things and come back a better player.
"Coming off screens, finding spots on floor where I could raise (for jump shots), dribble moves to get to step-backs. Forced driving and then pop up to get defenders on their heels.
"I did a lot of shooting this summer," added George, who is connecting on a career-best .465 percent of his shots.
Vogel said George's pull-up jumper is a weapon.
"He's got the length to get his shot off. It's very difficult to contest it," said the coach.
"His little inside-out moves and the Kobe Bryant moves where he's taking a lateral dribble to create some airspace for himself. Then it comes down to the shotmaking and the repetitions he's getting on those shots. It's given us free looks."
Guard George Hill said George was a special player.
"He's one of the best in the league and I don't say that just because he's my teammate," said Hill. "It's just the way he plays on both ends of the floor. He wants to match up with the best player on the other team."
George opened many eyes during last season's playoffs, showing off his prowess at both ends of the floor and averaging 19.4 points in the conference finals against James and the Heat.
Since then, the Pacers have added depth in forwards Chris Copeland and Argentine veteran Luis Scola and the young, physical Pacers return with another year's experience.
"Miami's the champs, they are the favorites until they're eliminated," said Vogel. "But we're looking to take the next step. We have better offense, got more depth and versatility.
"We have a good shot."
The soft-spoken George believes the Pacers are on their way.
"We've got another year under our belt, another year of advancing far in the playoffs and getting closer and closer to ultimately what our goal is, to win it all." he said.
"The sky's the limit."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)