Sitting a half game out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference at 23-33, the Indiana Pacers could have All-Star forward Paul George back just in time to make a postseason run.
George told Yahoo Sports earlier this month that he could make his season debut on March 14 against the Boston Celtics at home. It would be the 24-year-old’s first game back from a compound leg fracture he suffered on Aug. 1 in an USA Basketball exhibition game.
"March 1 isn't when I wanted to play my first game, but when I wanted to be full-out practicing, doing up-and-down full court without any restrictions or limitations," George said. "From there on, it's seeing how far I can progress to where I play my first game. My hope is it's an opponent where I feel comfortable coming back to where there isn't too much pressure to perform, where I can ease my way back in. But I want to say around mid-March, I could probably come back around that time."
Earlier this month, Pacers president Larry Bird changed the organization’s stance on George’s status for the season, saying he wanted George to play when he was ready and not necessarily sit out the entire year as originally projected.
The Pacers, ranked No. 23 in the league in points per game, could certainly use more scoring as they try to avoid missing the playoffs for first time since 2010, the season before they drafted George No. 10 overall.
Before he sustained the injury, George was coming off his best pro season with 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 steals per game, and making a strong case as one of the best all-around players in the league.
With George leading the way, and center Roy Hibbert holding down the middle, the Pacers have made the Eastern Conference finals the last two years.
Indiana has thus far gotten by with seven players averaging more than 10 points a game, but has gotten some-to-little production at small forward with a rotation of current starter Solomon Hill, and Damjan Rudez and Chris Copeland coming off the bench.
George wouldn’t have to play heavy minutes right away either with such depth on the Pacers bench. He can also take some defensive pressure off Hibbert and forward David West down low, while allowing leading scorer and point guard George Hill to act more as the offense’s facilitator rather than focal point.
Indiana’s schedule isn’t too difficult in the final stretch of the season either. Of its 26 remaining games, 10 will be against teams currently out of the postseason, including three matchups against the team with the worst record in the league, the 10-45 New York Knicks. The Pacers also have uneven matchups against the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic.
Only 11 of Indiana’s remaining games will be on the road, but they do have four back-to-back stints, all of which Pacers head coach Frank Vogel is likely to sit George altogether or divvy out limited minutes.
The road to the postseason was also made a little easier with Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh forced to sit out the rest of the season for treatment of a blood clot on his lung. The No. 7 seed Heat and the Pacers are separated by one game in the East standings.
George also said he would like to see a first-round matchup against either the top seeded Atlanta Hawks, or LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. James and his previous club the Miami Heat ousted Indiana from the playoffs the last three seasons.
"That would be ideal," George said. "I think if that happens the story kind of writes itself. That would be ideal, especially if we go against Atlanta in the first round because we were the first seed last year. That's a rematch they want for sure as well."