May 24, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) dribbles the ball as Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) defends in the third quarter of game two of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
The Eastern Conference finals between the plucky Indiana Pacers and top-seeded Miami Heat is giving NBA fans a battle with all the hallmarks of a classic series, including a fierce duel between two red-hot players.
Miami's LeBron James, the top player in the league today, was always going to be the key figure in the 2013 playoffs but Indiana's Paul George has emerged as the young pretender to his crown with the best-of-seven series tied at 1-1.
Toward the end of Indiana's 97-93 road win on Friday in which James carried a strangely misfiring Heat team with a game-high 36 points, the 23-year-old George delivered game-winning defense against the Heat star to add to his 22 points.
There were moments where the play between the two truly took on the nature of a duel, none more so than a wild sequence in the closing seconds of the third quarter.
Moments after George beat James en route to powering home a highlight-reel dunk, the league's reigning Most Valuable Player, facing George, responded with a three-pointer to close the quarter and cut Indiana's lead to 76-74.
James, 28, then slapped hands with George and, according to the Pacers forward, said: "I got you back young fella."
The significance of the gesture was not lost on George: "That was a moment that I will always remember," he told reporters.
The self-proclaimed "King James" certainly knows he has a challenge on his hands against the third-year player from California.
"He's really good. He's going to be a great one. His maturity and his game have risen in just one year because of the opportunity (coach) Frank Vogel has given him," James said.
"I love competition. I try to step up to the challenge."
Inevitably, having predicted greatness for George, James was asked what his opponent needed to do to step up to the next level of being a truly elite player in the National Basketball Association.
The four-time MVP smiled: "I know the answer to that. I'm not going to say it right now when I'm competing against the guy, he might use that during our matchup right now.
"But I know the answer and I'll answer it after the series."
It was an acknowledgement from James, who despite attempts from some quarters to portray him as selfish, is often generous in his praise of opponents and teammates and that George is well capable of quickly making that step up.
It was also an indication, if anyone still doubted it, that defending champion Heat know they are going to have to be at their very best to reach their third straight NBA Finals.
This all came after George's superb defensive work on James helped force two uncharacteristic turnovers from him inside the final two minutes.
"I can't believe how much that kid keeps growing and growing," Vogel said.
"He's a third year player going against the best player in the world in LeBron and he is guarding him the entire night and carrying an offensive scoring load and just making confidence building plays on the offensive end.
"He is giving us a huge, huge lift."
The series shifts to Indianapolis for Game Three today and Game Four on Tuesday and Indiana, 6-0 at home through two playoff rounds, will like their chances having won both meetings at home versus Miami in the regular season.
The Heat know their bench, which produced just 19 points on Friday, needs to start delivering and will also hope Dwyane Wade can provide James with more support after a disappointing night that included 14 points.
The Pacers, who protected the rim so well with Roy Hibbert, know they will have to maintain their superb defense if they are to defend home court.
But above all, James and George know that their personal matchup will go so far to determining the outcome of what has so far been an enthralling series.