It was almost a year ago when Paul George spoke to reporters for the first time since suffering a gruesome broken leg during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas months earlier. At the time George, a two-time All-Star, had been limited in his brief rehabilitation to stationary shooting and running on a treadmill in a pool. There was no timetable for his return, and while George said then he had "no doubt" he'd be "coming back better," no one could be sure given the severity of the injury, an open tibia-fibula fracture in his right leg.
Monday night George made yet another convincing argument that he's all the way back. His comeback tour added another chapter, with the 25-year-old forward scoring 26 points, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out five assists against the Bulls. His efforts came up just short in a 96-95 loss, as his fadeaway jumper at the buzzer was blocked by Jimmy Butler, but George's ability to lead the short-handed Pacers to nearly overcoming a 15-point deficit on the road against a division foe was another step in his resurgence among one of the NBA's elite.
Monday marked the seventh consecutive game George has eclipsed the 26-point mark, the longest stretch of his career. Five of those opponents were ranked in the top-12 in defensive efficiency, including Boston (twice), Cleveland, Miami and Orlando. Monday night posed yet another challenge. Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls entered the game with the league's No. 5 defensive efficiency, and George was shadowed much of the evening by Butler, a reigning All-NBA Defensive Second Team member.
But in a battle of Most Improved Players - George earned the award in 2013 and Butler won it in 2015 - George was zoned in from the opening tip, not worrying about what stood in front of him.
"In this league I have the most confidence in myself that this is the way I should be playing," George said after the game. "Regardless of team or who’s guarding me."
In George's 39 minutes, tied for a season-high, he was relentless. He attacked Butler, forcing the Bulls swingman into five personal fouls, connected on four 3-pointers as he and C.J. Miles (19 points, five 3-pointers) worked as a two-man show to keep the Bulls close in the first half. When Monta Ellis (20 points) took over in the third quarter, scoring eight points, it set the stage for George to perform as the closing act. And he almost succeeded.
George hit his last triple of the night to pull the Pacers within five after the Bulls had pushed the lead to eight and were ready to run away with it. He scored five straight to get Indiana within two, with an Ellis layup tying the score 93-93 with 2:11 to play the next trip down. George also guarded Butler, who went 1-for-6 in the final frame, the majority of the final period, showing off his length and quickness on both ends as the Pacers, playing without guards George Hill and Rodney Stuckey, fought back.
Hill's absence at the point didn't allow the offense to function as well as it could have, but there were also glimpses of Frank Vogel's spread offense functioning at a high level. Much like the Bulls, the Pacers are transitioning this season from a more traditional structure to a quicker-paced, free-flowing offense. It's meant more time at the power forward spot for George, a natural small forward, though he and Butler guarded each other most of the night, with C.J. Miles guarding a man up; at times Vogel also used George at small forward as Hoiberg's Bulls went with bigger lineups. Vogel countered with a combination of Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill.
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The Pacers shot just 40 percent from the field and committed 12 turnovers, but George reiterated that he's pleased with how his teammates are responding to both the new offensive structure as well as his addition to the rotation. The Pacers are playing two possessions per game faster this season, and in stretches like the end of the third quarter there were obvious signs that it's something the roster is built for.
"We’ve played enough games now, we’ve been together long enough now, to kind of get a feel for one another and better chemistry going on on the court," George said.
George's numbers this early in the year have come as a bit of a surprise, given the time he spent off the court — not including the forgettable six-game stretch he had at the tail end of last season — and he has the Pacers looking like a team ready to get back to the playoffs after missing out on a tiebreaker to the Nets a year ago. The Pacers still have won six of their last eight following an 0-3 start, and the offense will only get better as it settles into a groove with George pacing the way.
From stationary shooting a year ago to transition 3-pointers. From running on treadmills a year ago to using spin moves to drive baseline on one of the league's best defenses, George showed once again that he's put his injury behind him. He vowed to be better than he was prior to the devastating injury, and the early returns are proving he was spot-on in his assessment.
"I had a whole year off and then a big summer to really get better and get back to work to help this team win," George said. "Spent a lot of hours working on my game, working on myself, so it’s no surprise to me. I guess it’s just a surprise, people didn’t think I’d get off to this start considering the injury. But I’ve worked toward this."