That Paul George‘s return should have come against the Miami Heat felt fateful for reasons both past and present.
The Heat have obviously been the Pacers’ nemesis for the last couple seasons, the team Indiana has been unable to get through, but also currently one of the teams the Pacers are competing against for the final pair of playoff spots in the East.
Indiana won that game, pushing them into a tie with the Heat for the time being, although both teams are still on the outside of the playoffs with Brooklyn and Boston holding things down in the final two slots. Miami pulled out a win against Charlotte on Tuesday, pushing the Heat a half-game ahead of the Pacers again.
George played a big role in helping the Pacers to the win over the Heat, scoring 13 points to go along with a pair each of assists, steals and rebounds in his first game as No. 13. The small forward was effective at both ends of the floor, with three three-pointers and some strong defensive possessions in his 15 minutes of play despite obviously favoring his rehabbed right leg at times.
On two separate fast break situations, George beefed attempts that the old PG would have turned into no-questions-asked dunks. The first time, he failed to elevate and missed a wide-open layup following what was actually an impressive steal, then soon after that, barreled into Goran Dragic on a charge call that could have easily been avoided with a Euro-step. Both were situations in which George appeared to be thinking too much, not implicitly trusting his leg and athletic instincts.
George’s landings looked a bit ginger at times as well, but all of this was to be expected, especially since these first few games back are both part of his recovery and a period of shedding some rust. Overall, George looked healthy, happy and well on his way to being the premier player the Pacers were once used to having as their star and leader.
One thing that definitely didn’t have any rust was George’s jump shot. Since his days in a walking boot, George has been getting shots up, so to see his jumper working wasn’t stunning. Still, George hit not just his first shot––an off-balance, left-footed leaner––but a trio of three-pointers as well. They say a player’s shot is the one thing that never leaves them, but when a player misses eight months with a gruesome injury to their leg, there’s a bit of concern as to how well their jump shot will return, especially the jump part. Aside from some predictable growing pains, George looked more ready-to-go than even the most optimistic Indiana fans could have imagined.
That’s great news for George and great news for the Pacers, who have been flailing recently in their efforts to separate themselves from the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff pack. Indiana had lost nine of its last 12 games prior to George’s return, and his 15 minutes during their win in his return were meaningful. Put it this way, they filled that time much more productively than the combination of C.J. Miles/Solomon Hill even on their best night.
Still, just how much George can help this Pacers team right now remains to be seen. While the small forward has no minutes restriction in his return, the team surely won’t rush him to play big minutes, which immediately diminishes his value. The sample size is just one game right now, too, so it’s certainly possible that George could struggle in Indiana’s remaining games, especially as teams start to focus on him once again as a primary offensive threat. On defense, thankfully, George has already demonstrated that he’ll be able to contribute immediately, but that’s just half the game.
Really, George’s biggest problem with having a chance to make an impact will be the fact that the Pacers have just five games remaining, and none of them are against the Nets or Celtics, the two teams ahead of them in the standings. In fact, Indiana lost a pair of games to that East Coast pair last week, just a couple games before George’s return.
Indiana’s final games will be against the Knicks, Pistons, Thunder, Wizards and Grizzlies, a stretch during which they could easily go 2-3. That doesn’t leave much time to ease George into heavier minutes, so the Pacers will have to make a choice about how much of an opportunity they even want to give their star player.
By steering toward the playoffs and never giving up on this year, along with bringing George back before next season, Indiana has signaled that its serious about making the playoffs. Based on his activity level during his first game, George is serious about helping them get there, and provided that the Pacers give him a chance and his jumper continues to drop, he might finally be able to help them make it happen.