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LeBron James.

Not Carmelo Anthony. Not Kobe Bryant nor Kevin Durant, either.

Strictly LeBron James.

James is the one who causes the fire to burn within Indiana Pacers emerging superstar Paul George.

James pushed George to get better after losing to him in the second round of the playoffs last year.

James did it after working with George during the Team USA camp last summer in Las Vegas.

And he’ll cause George to do it again this summer as James further established himself as the best player in the world when the Miami Heat beat the Pacers in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

“LeBron always makes me better every summer,” George said as he sat inside the American Airlines Arena locker room after Monday’s Game 7.

George officially arrived on the scene this season, making the first of what should be many All-Star appearances.

But he knows he has work ahead of him if he expects to close the gap between him and James.

That was evident in Game 7 when — with the season on the line — LeBron was LeBron, finishing with 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists. George ended his season scoring seven points — his second lowest total of the playoffs, on 2-of-9 shooting before fouling out.

“LeBron guarding Paul probably impacted him some,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s the best player in the world. Maybe the best defensive player in the world.”

Vogel met George several feet out on the court to embrace him in a hug and congratulate him on how far he’s come in just three years after he fouled out of Game 7.

Leading scorer.

All-Defensive team player.


League’s Most Improved Player.

“His best talent is his hunger and his drive and determination,” Vogel said. “That’s the most encouraging thing I see with Paul George. That’s the biggest reason why he’s shed our image and destroyed (the idea) entirely that the Indiana Pacers are team without a superstar.”

And guess what?

George is only 23 years old.

The Pacers will continue to use a team-first mind frame, but George is the present and the future of the franchise.

Pacers owner Herb Simon should go ahead and get the lucrative contract ready for George once he’s eligible for an extension on July 1.

George stature amongst his peer was evident during the end of the third quarter of Game 2.

James, a four-time league Most Valuable Player, gave George daps after he followed the Pacers swingman’s highlight-reel dunk on Chris “Birdman” Andersen with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Before George could make his way to the locker room at the end of the Game 7, James gave his counterpart some encouraging words.

“(He said) I have a heck of a career in the future. I had a great run, continue to keep working and I’ll probably see him this summer,” George said.

Like he did last summer, George will break down film, take part in the Team USA mini-camp in Las Vegas and workout in Southern California where he’ll put an emphasis on his conditioning.

George was expected to improve this season. But he was supposed to be just a piece to a team that returned its starting five.

It turns out George was forced to be the piece for the Pacers because of Danny Granger’s knee injury, which limited him to just five games this season.

George had to score, which he did, averaging a team-high 17.4 points a game (up from 12.1), with the turning point coming in early December when he went straight from the airport to the practice court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse following a scoreless game against the Golden State Warriors.

He had to defend, too, which he did, matching up against the opposing team’s best perimeter player.

LeBron. Kobe. Durant. The list goes on and on.

And George had to play heavy minutes, averaging a team-high 37.6 a game (up from 29.7).

“I didn’t prepare this year to be the No. 1 option and the go-to guy on this team,” George said. “I prepared to be a better Paul George and help offensively, but I didn’t prepare to take on this role. This summer, it’ll be about being that guy and knowing how to really work at it. It’ll be conditioning, working on my body and making sure I’ll be able to help and be comfortable shooting the ball everywhere on the floor.”

George has always been a soft-spoken player who has let the older players lead the way. But as the Pacers got together one final time after their season came to an end, a voice emerged from the back of the pack.

It was the team’s soon-to-be fourth-year — and best — player.

“Paul speaking up about what it’s going to take to get back further next year,” Vogel said. “I thought that was a tremendous growth step for him and something I think is going to carry him into the summer and into this next year in terms of taking on more a leadership role.”

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