INDIANAPOLIS — As Paul George glided down the right side of the floor late in the first quarter with nothing but open court between him and the rim, fans throughout Bankers Life Fieldhouse rose in anticipation of something memorable.
They were hoping for a jaw-dropping dunk to confirm one of the NBA's best players was on his way to regaining the explosiveness that was a hallmark of his game before he broke his right leg in gruesome fashion last August. What they got instead was George botching an uncontested layup and smiling sheepishly afterward.
"That's why I'm happy I chose to come back now and get some games under my feet, so I can eliminate those mistakes going forward," George said. "It was an embarrassing moment, but I'm happy to be embarrassed at this time."
Clunky moments were as frequent as flashes of George's former All-Star form during his first game back Sunday night, but his mere presence on the floor was a triumph in itself. It was only eight months ago that many feared George's career might be in jeopardy after he suffered a compound fracture of both bones in his lower right leg when he landed awkwardly attempting to contest a James Harden layup during a USA Basketball exhibition.
Indiana coach Frank Vogel was understandably cautious with how he used George on Sunday night, bringing him off the bench for a pair of seven-minute stints midway through the first and second half. The 6-foot-9 small forward provided an emotional lift with his presence and then impacted the game with his outside shooting and his activity on defense, scoring 13 points to help Indiana defeat Miami 112-89 in a battle between two teams competing for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
"I thought he looked good," Vogel said. "We've seen him play for five weeks [in practice] and what we saw out there wasn't any different than what we'd been seeing. He shot the ball well. You could see how much we'd missed him on the defensive end, how he impacts so many different plays with deflections and his instincts. I thought it was a solid first effort from him."
If the timing of George's return could spearhead a last-gasp Pacers playoff push, the reality is that's not the main reason he was on the floor Sunday night.
George had proven his leg could withstand two hours of medium-intensity practice over the past five weeks, so the next logical step in his rehab process was seeing how it would respond to the stress of a game. It was merely a happy coincidence for the Pacers that Sunday's opponent was the Miami team Indiana trailed by one game for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot entering play.
What helped relax George during the day-long wait until tip-off was attending an Easter sermon focused on enduring bruises and scars and coming back stronger in spite of them. George also had a pregame chat with USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who made time to visit on the eve of Duke's matchup with Wisconsin in the national title game.
The anticipation for George's return was obvious from the hundreds of fans in the crowd wearing his jersey and the thousands more waving "Welcome Back PG" signs.
They stood and screamed when he stripped off his white warmup T-shirt and entered the game for the first time with 5:34 remaining in the first quarter. They cheered again when he touched the ball for the first time moments later. The roars reached a crescendo with 3:45 to go in the quarter when he lost Mario Chalmers curling around a Roy Hibbert screen and buried a 14-footer on his first shot of the game.
"These fans welcoming me back into the game was probably the most gracious moment that I've had," George said. "It's so hard not to get caught up in the moment. I didn't want to get too riled up, but man, just happy to be back to the game."
The cheers from the fans continued throughout the game as George shot 5 of 12 from the field and tallied two steals, two rebounds and two assists.
Among the highlights from George: a trio of 3-pointers including one off an inbound pass with a defender draped all over him. Among the moments he'd like to forget: the missed layup and two other turnovers in transition, the first a blatant charging foul and the second a needless shove as he tried to separate from Chalmers.
Asked if he was surprised by how well he shot in his first game after such a long layoff, George had a one-liner ready.
"I hurt my leg, not my arms," he joked. "I knew I was going to be able to make some shots."
While George had an ice bag on his right leg after the game and admitted to experiencing some postgame soreness, he also said he did not think about the leg much during the game. That was enough to persuade Vogel to commit to playing George in each of Indiana's remaining five games, though he says how much George will play will be a day-by-day decision.
As George left the game for the final time with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Vogel pulled him in close for a quick chat.
"I told him, 'Damn, I missed you,' " Vogel revealed later.
Judging from the ovation from the crowd and hugs from George's teammates that followed, Vogel wasn't the only one.
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