Larry Bird expects Paul George to play this season

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Pacers president Larry Bird re-ignited the discussion of Paul George playing again this season, openly discussing the possibility last month.

George was initially uncertain, and then he eventually said he planned to return in the middle of this month. He began practicing with the Pacers late last month, but at least one teammate was skeptical he’d return before the season ended. A couple weeks ago, George said he was on the fence about returning this season. Though a report emerged he’d play this week, George has maintained there’s no specific timeline.

But Bird is again cranking up the hype.

Bird, via Mike Mazzeo of ESPN:

“He’s getting a lot better,” Bird said. “I think he has to go through a series of tests this week, just like we’ve always been doing to see where he’s at. I think he’s cleared by the doctors to play, but obviously he’s not in shape. Just because he’s cleared to play, doesn’t mean he’s in shape to play. And I don’t want Paul to go out there until he feels comfortable with his conditioning and the way he’s practicing. I’d like to see him do a little bit better.

“It was a rough go at the beginning, which we knew it was going to be. He (isn’t) going to be Paul George, 100 percent. We know that. But I think mentally he wants to get out there, play a few games and get ready to see what he needs to do this summer to get back to 100 percent — and he will.

“I expect him to play this year. I hope he does for his own good — not for us to get in the playoffs or anything like that, but just for his own mental state. I think anytime you go through an injury like that, you have to get back out there and prove yourself. But he’s not going to be 100 percent.”

That’s a pretty strong statement, and I doubt Bird would make it if he weren’t certain George would return. Bird obviously has access to more information than we do, and it’d be foolish for him to raise the bar to a level George can’t clear. That would do nothing but embarrass George.

The Pacers are a half game out playoff position, and obviously, if they make the postseason, that would give George more time to get into shape.

Based on Bird’s words, though, I’m guessing George returns in the regular season.