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Despite what Larry Bird says, coach Frank Vogel says Paul George “not ready” to play

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers

NBAE/Getty Images

“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.”

That was Pacers’ president Larry Bird speaking Monday about the potential return of Paul George to the Pacers’ rotation. Bird said he expects George to play this season.

Before the Pacers’ latest loss that night, coach Frank Vogel was not nearly as optimistic about a return, as reported by Candace Buckner of the Indy Star.

Later, Vogel offered the opposite: “There’s a lot of layers to that, so he hasn’t been cleared to play for us.”

Vogel, who has had to face daily questions about a possible return more than the player and the president, repeated that George was cleared to practice. When told that Bird mentioned the clearance was to play, which would be a dramatic difference, Vogel replied: “Well, that’s what Larry said.”

“Like I said,” Vogel continued, “there’s a lot of layers to it. He’s not ready. He hasn’t reached our level of what we feel he’s ready to play.”

The discrepancy may just be a matter of semantics between Bird and Vogel. George has been cleared to practice, but that is different than having gone through contact practices pain-free and being in shape to return. George is somewhere on that spectrum.

But the Pacers look like a team in need of a savior. Or at least a jolt.

Monday night the Pacers fell to the Rockets when they were unable to contain James Harden, Indy’s sixth loss in a row. While a lot of teams struggle with the aggressive nature of Harden’s game, Indiana’s defense has been a mess of late, allowing 111.6 points per 100 possessions in those six losses (which is the worst in the NBA in that stretch and worse than any NBA team’s season numbers). Roy Hibbert says the Pacers are taking the easy way out on defense, but whatever is going on it’s not been pretty.

Indiana has fallen from a team that looked like a playoff lock to one a game back of eight-seed Boston with some work to do. George — at least a healthy George — would be a big help with that. That said, the Pacers invested a lot of money in George’s new contract, and they need to take the big-picture view here — a grand push for the eight seed is not as important as being whole in future years.

The reality? The return is up to George and when he’s physically and mentally ready. No matter what Vogel or Bird or anyone else says.