TORONTO -- Twenty minutes after earning the biggest win of his coaching career, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey uttered a declaration that will reverberate in the NBA after the excitement of the Raptors' 89-84 Game 7 win over the Indiana Pacers fades.
"Paul George is back," Casey said.
Out of all the takeaways from this up-and-down series -- one which culminated in dramatic fashion as the Raptors will play in the second round for the first time in 15 years -- the biggest storyline is that George regained his place amongst the game's elite on the league's biggest stage. Over the past two weeks, George averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 39.3 minutes a game, almost single-handedly leading his team to a series triumph over the Eastern Conference's second-ranked team.
That George was able to accomplish all of this not even two years after suffering a gruesome broken leg injury wasn't lost on the 26-year-old.
"If they would have told me I would have a chance to lead my team the first year back," George said. "Give us a chance to advance to the second round, bring [the playoffs] back to Indiana after missing it last season. And then have to go against five guys, five different defenders, have to figure out how to score and make plays, as well as guard. If you told me I would have [done] all that this season and be healthy, I probably would have laughed. It's been a long journey. I'm very proud, very proud of my guys. It's been a good season for us."
The Pacers were understandably sad after the season-ending loss on Sunday, but those feelings were muted by the fact that there is no longer any doubt whether George can be the type of superstar player who can lead a team to a title. Now the question becomes what do Larry Bird and the Pacers have to do in order to make things easier on George?
When the question of roster improvement was posed to head coach Frank Vogel, he turned the conversation back toward the brightest part about his team's short playoff run.
"Paul George broke his leg in half two years ago," Vogel said. "This is a remarkable triumph and a remarkable return. For him to get back on the court this season and to play the way he did in the playoffs was just remarkable. In terms of taking pressure off [him], we've got a complete team. Our guys played well and he played well. We got to continue to grow and continue to build."
In the short term for George, that means he must continue rebuilding his body to a point where he can play huge minutes throughout the postseason. After averaging 34.8 minutes a year during the regular season, and close to 40 a game in the playoffs, George acknowledged that his body didn't have much energy left.
"I ran out of gas a little bit," he said. "I'm not going to try and sit here and be Superman. I definitely was winded late in the game. But it wasn't to the extreme of me losing focus and not making enough plays."
George's brilliance can't obscure the fact that the Pacers have some obvious roster flaws, which Bird and his staff have to fill this summer. On the rare occasions when George went cold or couldn't get into a rhythm, there wasn't always an offensive answer on Vogel's roster. Rookie Myles Turner appears to be a solid player who will continue to get better, and was pointed out specifically by George, but Monta Ellis and George Hill don't exactly strike fear in the hearts of opponents. The Pacers need another star to pair with George if they want to contend in the future -- a fact George understands. It's why he admitted after the game he will try and recruit free agents to Indianapolis this summer.
"Hopefully myself, Monta do a great job recruiting some free agents," George said. "Maybe George as well, getting a big name to come here and help us out."
The best news for the Pacers is that while George's words will have meaning around the league with potential free-agent targets, there is no bigger selling point for both himself and his team than his game. During this series, he was able to take another step in his development as a leader that will serve him well in the future. After deferring to guys like David West and Roy Hibbert in the past, George admitted that this series forced him to be a little more vocal toward his teammates. That's why in the wake of all the unhappiness, George was able to keep a better perspective about the future.
"Very, very pleased," George said. "I was ready for this moment. I was ready to step up. I was ready to do whatever it took to win. I knew I was going to have to have a big series -- to give us the best chance and also have to [be] at my best. There's a lot to take away from it ... the game just really slowed down. I had a better understanding of my game, how I can attack ... so I learned a lot. I learned what I was made of. Just so much to take away from this series."
George fell short of his goal, but he opened up plenty of eyes in the process. He is once again a force to be reckoned with and everyone around the league got a reminder of that over these past seven games.
"Unbelievable," Casey said of George's performance. "I tell you what, I remember trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant. And this young man reminds me of trying to prepare for a young Kobe Bryant back in the Laker days, like I was back in Seattle. ... I think he's back and I'm happy for him. Now that we're finished with him, I'm happy for him because he's a super young man. He represents everything basketball should be about. And he's back to his ... All-Star form."