Two hundred and forty-seven days ago, Paul George suffered a broken right leg that immeasurably altered his and the Pacers’ season. Some triumph over it came Sunday. Nothing could be done to reclaim the time George lost to recovery and rehabilitation, yet that George was able to return to the NBA court this season made for a victory in itself.
The possibility of George’s return had been teased throughout the season by optimistic reports and suggestive sound bites. There was no more need to read between the lines once George checked in at the 5:34 mark of the first quarter during Indiana’s 112-89 home win against Miami; the 77th Pacers game of this season. George drew applause from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd from the moment he rose from the bench and was showered with cheers upon his entry to the game.
To his credit, George kept his game calm. He finished with 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting in 15 minutes, including three three-pointers. His first few touches were spent entering the ball to Roy Hibbert in the post—a prominent part of the Pacers’ plan throughout the game. His first look at the rim came minutes later, courtesy of a pick-and-roll runner that may have been an attempt to draw a foul:
Moments of explosion were few and far between. George will need time to acclimate to the rhythms and rigors of the NBA game, much less dominate it the way he did last season. Never was that more evident than in George’s sprint out in transition, where his deflection-turned-steal allowed an uncontested look at the rim. George’s awkward, misstep layup bounced off the back rim deflated the entire building. George and the Pacers shared a laugh, and on the next possession George corrected course with a nice, should-be assist to Rodney Stuckey:
George’s only other field goal of the first half came on a perfectly swished three-pointer. The rest of George’s game should return to him in time, but already he looks capable of spacing the floor for the Pacers in a way they badly need:
The nervous bounce after his shot’s release summed up his first half perfectly. George was ready to get back out on the court and his body is cleared to be up to the challenge. What comes next is the deliberate process of re-learning basketball movement after months spent in physical training re-calibrating his leg’s basic range of motion. Expect a few more of these, in which George shorts a shot after meeting a defender:
And these, where his timing and explosion clearly isn’t where you'd expect:
There was bound to be rust, as evidenced by George's three turnovers and seven missed shots to counterbalance his 13 points, two assists, and two steals. "I was everything that I expected," George told reporters the game.
Of course, all of those moments fell away once George started to tap into some of what makes him so special. There wasn't much evidence of George's defensive prowess. The All-Defense regular was present and engaged, but never especially stifling. Instead, George showed off some of the gutsy shot-making ability that came through his development last season. There aren't many players in the league who can make this shot look routine in their first game back from such a significant injury:
Nor this smooth pull-up after ducking behind a screen:
"I hurt my leg, not my arms," George said postgame, according to Yahoo! Sports. "I knew I was going to be able to make some shots."
George went on to miss another pair of threes, reinforcing what all with the Pacers already know: There is no way around the awkward reintroduction. But every one of George’s misses and missteps has a kind of optimism that goes well beyond the significance of those possessions or even the Pacers’ ongoing race to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs. There is no individual more crucial in Indiana’s immediate basketball future than George and thus no April development more critical than his healthy return.