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What Does Paul George’s Return Mean for the Pacers?

Some eight months after breaking his leg in a USA Basketball scrimmage, Paul George announced that he’ll suit up for the Indiana Pacers against the Miami Heat on Sunday:

George’s return comes at the perfect time for the Pacers, as they’re locked in a five-way battle for the final two playoff spots in the East. George obviously won’t come back at 100 percent of his usual self, nor will the Pacers expect him to. His return will be gradual, but the simple morale boost of seeing George in a Pacers uniform and on the court for a handful of minutes could be huge psychologically.

It’s the kind of boost the Pacers need in a maddeningly tight race for those last two playoff spots. Indiana is 1½ games behind the eighth-seeded Heat and can grab a crucial tiebreaker with a win on Sunday. The tiebreaker will essentially serve as an extra half-game advantage should Indiana and Miami finish with identical records. The Pacers need to control at least one tiebreaker against their rivals, because both the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets won their regular-season series against Indiana.

George will almost definitely be rusty after a long layoff and will probably face some kind of minutes restriction, but with six games left on tap, he could have enough impact to bring momentum back to the Pacers at a crucial moment.

The Pacers have understandably struggled to replace the production of an All-Star level player, compounded when the team lost Lance Stephenson to Charlotte over the offseason. Thankfully, Roy Hibbert remembered he’s actually a very good and very tall basketball player and is playing closer to his 2013-14 peak. George Hill is playing some of the best basketball of his career after early-season injuries, and Rodney Stuckey has been a steal at the minimum.

Indiana forced itself back into the chaotic Eastern Conference playoff bracket by virtue of a strong February stretch that included a streak of 13 wins in 15 games, a stretch that had them looking like a favorite to secure a playoff berth that seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year. Then the wheels fell off and the Pacers slumped to seven losses in eight games. Indiana has gone 2-2 since then, including a blowout victory over Charlotte on Friday night.

The Pacers have some tough games to close out the year, including contests against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies. However, games against the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons are very winnable, and quite frankly, must-wins for Indiana.

The Pacers likely need to win at least four of their final six games while hoping Boston, Brooklyn and Miami slip up down the stretch. The Nets and Celtics have the toughest remaining schedules of any East teams, while the Heat have one of the easiest. Indiana’s remaining slate is the eighth-easiest in the conference, and the Pacers are hoping the return of George will help provide the boost they need to get into the postseason.

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