Was Paul George’s return a timely one for the Indiana Pacers?
It has been eight months since George suffered what was perhaps the most gruesome leg injury in recent basketball history. Knowing the implications of his return would give other NBA teams a model to follow should a similar incident happen to one of their players.
According to an Aug. 3, 2014 update from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, USA Basketball “confirmed George suffered an open-tibula fracture” after he hit his right leg on the goal stanchion when he tried to defend James Harden on the fastbreak.
The Pacers’ official website released a statement from team president Larry Bird shortly after PG-13’s injury which reads,”We are aware of the injury sustained by Paul George in Friday night’s Team USA game in Las Vegas and we are obviously greatly concerned. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with Paul.”
George returned to the Pacers’ lineup on April 5 after missing the first 76 games of the 2014-15 NBA season. His return sparked Indiana to a 112-89 thrashing of the visiting Miami Heat to keep its fading playoff hopes alive.
Many are torn regarding George’s decision: Some feel he did the right thing while others thought he should have sat out the season so he could fully recuperate and be an even better player in 2015-16.
Probing deeper into both arguments should give us better insight.
PG-13’s Return Against The Miami Heat on April 5
According to Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth, George’s return against the Heat on Sunday was the first NBA game he’s played in since the same Heat team (then with four-time MVP LeBron James) dispatched Indiana in six games in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.
PG-13 played decently in 14 and-a-half minutes of action: He produced the same amount of points as his jersey number on 5-0f-12 shooting (3 of 6 from deep), per ESPN.
Montieth describes George’s first game back in quite some time in greater detail:
And then there were the fans, 18,000 of them, many of them holding yellow signs that read ‘Welcome Back PG.’ They cheered him when he took the court, cheered more loudly when he reported to the scorer’s table to enter the game with 5:34 left in the first quarter and exploded when he hit his first shot attempt, an off-balance 14-footer curling off Roy Hibbert’s screen.
‘It was what I dreamed of,’ he said.
George missed his next four shots, including a breakaway layup in the final minute of the quarter when it appeared he couldn’t decide to dunk or lay the ball in the basket, but he opened the second period with a 3-pointer from the left corner.
That was the one that made him feel like he was back. And he went on to hit a 3-pointer from the left corner. That was the one that made him feel like he was back. And he went on to hit two more 3-pointers in the fourth quarter—a quick catch-and-shoot off an inbounds pass and a well-defended shot from out front moments later.
Cut the soundtrack and roll the credits. That was enough for one debut.
‘I felt everything was scripted,’ he said moments later.
His teammate, Argentinian power forward Luis Scola, told Montieth what George did was anything but easy:
It’s hard to do what he did. He played really well. He hit a couple of long shots. Those sometimes go in, but sometimes they don’t, and that got him going.
But he played really, really well. I was surprised. I didn’t expect him to play that well.
Among George’s supporters at courtside were his parents, his one-year-old daughter Olivia, Duke Blue Devils head men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and Papa John’s pizza chain owner John Schnatter, per Pacers.com.
Four-star general Martin Dempsey presented George with an honorary dog tag before the game against the Heat, per Montieth.
The Case For Paul George’s Return
The most obvious argument for PG-13’s return is the Indiana Pacers precarious playoff situation: They are on the bubble with a 34-43 (.442) win-loss record (tied with the Heat for ninth in the East, through April 6), per ESPN.
The Pacers need every form of help they can get. Don’t be deceived by the combined 183-202 (.475) win-loss record of Indy’s next five opponents—a huge majority of those losses come from Eastern Conference bottom feeders Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks.
The next three foes—the Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies are more formidable.
Indiana looked more like a Top 4 team in the East with George in tow against the Heat on Sunday rather than a 34-43 ballclub. Despite PG-13 not being at full strength, he ought to give his team a huge emotional lift as it makes a late-season playoff push.
Pay close attention to what WTHR sports columnist Bob Kravitz had to say about George’s comeback in his April 5 update:
Guys who break their legs aren’t supposed to be doing these kinds of things eight months later. They’re not supposed to be running and jumping and cutting, fighting through screens and rising up to hit three-point shots.
Some of us thought George’s return would be painful to witness, that he would be a ghost of his former self in these first few games back. Instead, he was a wonderful surprise, a revelation, and he suddenly makes the Pacers an interesting team down the stretch, and possibly in the playoffs.
Kravitz makes a solid point here. Without George, we would not have known what to expect from a very unpredictable and streaky Pacers team. With him back, he makes the Blue and Gold interesting to watch, to say the least.
The Case Against Paul George’s Return
First and foremost, George should have held back on returning this season because of his health. Delaying a potential comeback would have ensured his broken leg will be able to withstand the grind of an 82-game NBA season.
However, George told The Indianapolis Star’s Candace Buckner on April 5 taking the court again before the 2014-15 NBA regular season comes to an end would be the ultimate litmus test of his progress:
That’s exactly what it is, just seeing where I’m at and getting ready for more rehab this summer and getting ready to build off these last couple games of the season. I wanted to go that route as far as knowing what I need to work on going into the summer.
Really, that’s what it’s about. I wouldn’t have known what I (would) need to do heading into the summer if I hadn’t played any games.
Bird also confirmed to Buckner on Sunday his franchise player is “not 100 percent.” He did assure Pacers fans his franchise player will be all right:
I’m not sure if he’s 100 percent sure when he stops sometimes but he’s been out a long time and he’s had a serious injury but Paul’s going to be fine.
He’s not going to run as smooth as he used to but over time he’ll get better and better. Just over the last month I’ve seen a major difference. He’s going to be fine.
Bird is as credible talent assessor, so when he says PG-13’s going to be fine, we should take his word for it.
Another case against George’s comeback is team chemistry. Will he disrupt it knowing his teammates were without him for the first 76 games of the season?
This is doubtful. Instead of disrupting Indy’s chemistry, George should be that much-needed boost a wobbling Pacers team (which had lost nine of 12 games prior to his comeback) desperately needs.
Indiana has also been a bad offensive team (24th in the league at 97.1 PPG in 2014-15, per ESPN), so PG-13 will provide a spark even if he plays just 10 to 15 minutes per game.
The Final Say
It seems George picked the perfect time to make an epic comeback from a horrible leg injury.
The Pacers looked like playoff contenders in their 112-89 demolition of the Miami Heat on April 5. He largely overwhelmed in his return, scoring 13 points in just under 15 minutes of playing time. Had he been in top shape, he would have easily scored 30 or more.
Bottom line: He makes the Indiana Pacers an interesting team with a puncher’s chance of making the playoffs. With the win over the Heat, the Pacers threw a hard jab. Should they keep on rolling, expect more uppercuts as they try to make another postseason appearance.
George told The Indianapolis Star his return against Miami on Sunday would be a good test of his progress. He passed it with flying colors.
To answer our earlier question, yes, Paul George’s return is a very timely one for the Indiana Pacers.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats/photos are current as of April 6 and are courtesy of ESPN.com.