As Paul George prepared to enter a game for the first time since his horrific leg injury last summer, he knew it'd be unlike any previous experience of his basketball life. The fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse made sure to greet him in a way he'll likely never forget.
The Indiana Pacers forward made his season debut against the Miami Heat Sunday night to raucous cheers from the home crowd, marking his much-anticipated return after a gruesome injury put his career on hold.
He wound up scoring 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting while grabbing two rebounds and dishing out two assists in 15 minutes of action as the Pacers defeated the Heat, 112-89.
George, 24, suffered a compound fracture to the tibia and fibula of his right leg during a Team USA scrimmage prior to last summer's World Cup. Going up to block a James Harden layup attempt, George's right foot planted halfway on the stanchion and floor, sending the entire momentum of his body in the opposite direction and the bone through his leg.
Team USA would go on to win gold in Spain, partially in its fallen comrade's honor.
The injury was initially given a tentative time frame of "at least" six months. George's injury happened Aug. 1, so it was considered possible for him to return sometime around the league's All-Star break or slightly thereafter. But the overarching sentiment was that he would miss the entire 2014-15 season, news that sent an already reeling Pacers core into full-on panic mode.
Having already lost Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets in free agency, Indiana opened the season without its two best perimeter defenders, offensive playmakers and projectable long-term talents. With the Pacers relying on George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West to take an inordinate amount of the workload, some thought they would fall entirely out of playoff contention.
Entering Sunday night, the Pacers were 10th in the Eastern Conference, one game behind Miami.
What George's return to the lineup means remains to be seen. If he's the player who averaged 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, made the All-Defensive first team and was a third-team All-NBA selection, then the Pacers will relish his return. Expecting that level of performance out of the gate, though, is irresponsible and unlikely.
The most recent comparison that comes to mind is former Louisville guard Kevin Ware, who suffered a similar injury in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Ware returned for the Cardinals' third game of their regular season but underwent numerous complications. After playing sporadic minutes in nine games, he was put back on the shelf after suffering a knock in a game against Missouri State. Ware decided to transfer to Georgia State for this upcoming season.
Neither George nor the Pacers have the luxury of a redshirt season or potential transfer. The Pacers are on the hook for the next four seasons of George's five-year, $91.64 million extension he signed last season. He is the team's designated player and qualified for the Rose rule, which allowed him to take up to 30 percent of Indiana's salary cap.
A strident avoider of the luxury tax, the Pacers need George to perform like a superstar to compete. They are not a franchise that can spend their way out of a mistake, even if said mistake was nothing of their doing. Insurance will help offset the financial commitment, but it won't atone for the Pacers' lack of cap flexibility.
That said, none of that matters in the interim. It's all good vibes and congratulations for now. Let's hope George's return comes with the type of on-court performance that ensures the Pacers never need to have an awkward conversation with their star.
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