INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When the burning sensation in Paul George‘s shattered right leg finally subsided in August 2014, the Indiana Pacers young star made a commitment to himself and his fans.
He would return to the basketball court even better.
Twenty months after suffering the unforgettably gruesome injury in Las Vegas, George has written the next chapter in his comeback tale with an incredible start to the NBA playoffs.
In Game 1 against Toronto, George scored 27 of his 33 points in the second half, almost willing the Pacers to a 100-90 victory over the East’s No. 2 seed. He added 28 points in Monday’s loss, leaving George with two-game totals of 61 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, five steals and a field-goal percentage of 54.1 percent. He’s 6 of 8 on 3s and 15 of 17 from the free-throw line, playing the same way he did when he led the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
“There’s no stopping PG. He’s playing phenomenal,” Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said after Toronto’s 98-87 victory in Game 2. “You’re not going to stop him from getting 25 or 30. He’s going to get that, that’s how talented he is.”
George’s amazing journey has been a series of steady steps.
Eight months after snapping his leg when he crashed into a basketball stanchion during a U.S. national team scrimmage and countless hours of grueling rehab, George returned to game action sooner than many thought possible. Seven months after that, the 6-foot-9 forward was named November’s Eastern Conference player of the month after averaging 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
In February, George made his third All-Star appearance, started for the second time, broke the All-Star Game record with nine 3-pointers and finished with 41 points, one short Wilt Chamberlain’s record from 1962. George finished the regular season ranked among the league’s top 10 in scoring (23.1 points), steals (1.9) and 3-pointers made (210) and produced the highest single-season point total (1,874) of his career.
On Thursday, George will have a chance to give the Pacers a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series when he makes his first home playoff appearance since May 28, 2014.
“I’m real excited to be back on the stage where I was able to make my name,” George said.
Yet George isn’t completely healthy.
Last week, coach Frank Vogel said this season was expected to be a “recovery year” for George and that there are times George feels soreness in his surgically-repaired right leg.
“I knew right away, in training camp, that I was going to be OK. I knew I was OK last summer,” George said. “But I’ve still not regained all of my strength and explosiveness. I’m hopeful I’ll get that explosion, that quick step back and be lighter on my feet. I do feel good with where I’m at right now.”
George spent this transition year learning how to play the four spot after spending his first five seasons playing almost exclusively at the three spot. He still thrived – and he doesn’t turn 26 until May 2.
Vogel figures George is only scratching the surface of what’s possible.
“It (the comeback) is remarkable. It’s just a testament to his work ethic and his competitiveness to get back to this level this fast,” Vogel said. “Injury aside, guys grow from year six to year 10, so we do still think there’s more there.”
First, though, George has big plans for the rest of this year.
He believes the Pacers, who have won seven of nine, are playing their best basketball at the right time and could make a surprising postseason run. And whenever the Pacers season ends, George has another goal – playing for Team USA at the Rio Olympics, another major step on the comeback trail.
“It’s a dream of mine,” he said. “I want to represent my country and do it alongside the best players in the country. We’ll see, after the season, how my body is feeling.”
So far, things look just fine.
George is playing well, his body is holding up and the Raptors have discovered how difficult the matchup can be.
“We’ve just got to make it a little bit more difficult (on George),” Lowry said. “He’s getting to his spots a little bit too easy.”