When Paul George suffered a horrific broken leg playing for the US national team in August 2014, his career was in jeopardy and the Indiana Pacers’ future looked equally unclear – even he wondered if he would ever be the same player again.
Fast forwarding to Indiana’s Game 1 win over the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, George announced to the world that he was back with a dominant 33-point performance, outdueling Raptors all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
With the obstacles in his path since the injury, George acknowledged the euphoric feeling of being back on the playoff stage as well as some of the challenges on his comeback trail.
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“Being back means everything,” he explained. “To be out of the playoffs last year and not being able to help my team was the biggest burden on me immediately after I got hurt. I told myself every year I want to be in the playoffs.
"I don’t want this team to go through the lottery – granted, it worked out when we got Myles [Turner] – but that was a burden I had on my shoulders and that hurt more than the actual break. It means a lot to be back here, to be on this stage again after where I came from. I’m back.”
“Someone told me there would be good days and bad days [with the recovery]. And that’s exactly what it was. Some days I felt great, some days it was like I wanted to throw it all in. There was a little bit of both but I had great people around me – family, friends, team-mates, the organization had my back, and the trainers, and God. I put everything together and trusted myself.
“I’m still not the player I was. I think maturity-wise, I’ve grown beyond the pre-injury player, but the physical part is where the pre-injury Paul George was better. But the injury made me work hard, it brought me back to why I started playing this game and that was putting the work in every day. I love the results.
And the Raptors were powerless to stop George from ripping the game away in the fourth quarter, as he hit a string of key shots to help Indiana draw first blood in the best-of-seven series. Of course, playing in big games deep in the playoffs – an edge that the Pacers have over the Raptors – is a factor too.
“It helps - just slowing the game down, not getting too rushed, seeing how they’re going to guard me taking my time, slowing my dribble and making the right plays. I’ve always been the guy watching – watching D [David] West make plays and other guys ahead of me. This was my opportunity. This is my team and I had to be in a position to make those plays. With me being here for so many years, that really helped me.”
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel loved what he saw from his star man.
“He was awesome – he was the biggest reason we won. Paul’s shot-making late in the game was spectacular. It’s been a long road for him. Before his injury, we were in the Conference Finals, so I think this is an exciting day for him being back to playoff basketball. He was attacking and making all the right reads.”
George and the Pacers will have the chance to take complete control of the series when Game 2 tips off on Monday night.