Injuries have taken some of the fun out of this year’s postseason. Stephen Curry suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both had season-ending injuries, Nicolas Batum struggled with an ankle injury, Avery Bradley went down with a serious hamstring injury, J.J. Barea and Deron Williams were hobbled, and the entire Memphis Grizzlies roster was decimated with an assortment of injuries.
While the loss of several marquee players during the first round and early part of the second round has been disappointing, there is at least one bit of injury news (or lack thereof) that somewhat makes up for it. Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey summed it up best after his team managed to inch past the Indiana Pacers in a decisive Game 7 on Sunday.
“Paul George is back,” Casey said.
Fortunately, Casey isn’t exaggerating. Paul George played incredibly well against the Raptors, averaging 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two steals, while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three-point range. Additionally, he registered a 28.1 Player Efficiency Rating and a 63.2 True Shooting Percentage.
For those who may not remember, George missed almost all of last season after suffering a gruesome leg injury while participating in a pre-FIBA World Cup Team USA exhibition on August 1, 2014. George managed to play in just eight games last season and, based on those performances, it wasn’t clear how long it would take for George to regain his former level of play, if ever.
Early in this season, George showed that he had made significant progress in the offseason and was getting closer to 100 percent. George put up impressive stat lines and made the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the third time in his career, but his shooting percentages were up and down and he did go through a few slumps. But George left no doubt in the first round of this year’s playoffs that he is now 100 percent back and better than ever.
George broke the Pacers’ record for most points in a playoff series, overtaking Pacer legend Reggie Miller. He also became just the fifth player since 2005 to have averaged 27 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a single year’s playoffs. The other four players are Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He’s also just the fifth player in the last 10 years with at least 39 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in a playoff game. The other four players are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo and Stephen Curry – pretty good company to say the least.
What is even more impressive is that George managed this level of production despite being matched against DeMarre Carroll, who is considered to be one of the better wing-defenders in the NBA. Carroll and the Raptors managed to force George into some tough shooting nights, but even when his shot wasn’t falling at a high rate, he contributed in other ways. He rebounded, was a playmaker and was effective on the defensive end as well.
In Game 5, George put up 39 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. The Pacers lost that game, but it wasn’t because George failed to show up. George also posted 26 points, 12 rebounds, one assist and three steals in Game 7, while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from three-point range. He also threw down a smooth 360-dunk that reminded us of his impressive dunks from before his leg injury.
Despite falling short to the Raptors, George seems optimistic about his progress and the way his team performed this season.
“If they would have told me I would have a chance to lead my team the first year back,” George said. “Give us a chance to advance to the second round, bring [the playoffs] back to Indiana after missing it last season. And then have to go against five guys, five different defenders, have to figure out how to score and make plays, as well as guard. If you told me I would have [done] all that this season and be healthy, I probably would have laughed. It’s been a long journey. I’m very proud, very proud of my guys. It’s been a good season for us.”
George didn’t have the most talented teammates, but the Pacers competed at a high level in each game and pushed the heavily-favored Raptors to the very end. In the process, George reestablished his place among the NBA’s elite.
“Paul George broke his leg in half two years ago,” Frank Vogel said. “This is a remarkable triumph and a remarkable return. For him to get back on the court this season and to play the way he did in the playoffs was just remarkable. In terms of taking pressure off [him], we’ve got a complete team. Our guys played well and he played well. We got to continue to grow and continue to build.”
The Pacers certainly have a long way to go if they hope to take the next step in their collective development. Pacers team president Larry Bird will need to make some offseason moves to put more talent around George. Fortunately for Bird, there are no lingering doubts that George is back from his injury and a superstar worthy of building a team around.
It’s easy to forget that George is still just 26 years old and still has room to keep improving his game. When asked for an assessment of his first-round performance, George responded with unqualified self-confidence and the belief that he could build from this experience.
“Very, very pleased,” George said. “I was ready for this moment. I was ready to step up. I was ready to do whatever it took to win. I knew I was going to have to have a big series — to give us the best chance and also have to [be] at my best. There’s a lot to take away from it … the game just really slowed down. I had a better understanding of my game, how I can attack … so I learned a lot. I learned what I was made of. Just so much to take away from this series.”
These playoffs have reminded us that injuries can happen at any time to anyone. But George reminded us that through hard work and perseverance, players can often come back from even the most gruesome injuries. After putting his team on his back and pushing the Raptors to the brink of elimination, there is no doubt that George has recaptured his rightful place among the NBA’s top-tier of players.
“Unbelievable,” Casey said of George’s performance. “I tell you what, I remember trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant. And this young man reminds me of trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant back in the Laker days, like I was back in Seattle. … I think he’s back and I’m happy for him. Now that we’re finished with him, I’m happy for him because he’s a super young man. He represents everything basketball should be about. And he’s back to his … All-Star form.”
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