George brings energy back with him

INDIANAPOLIS -- They all brought their No. 13 jerseys -- little kids and middle-aged men alike. They hoisted the "Welcome Back PG" signs and gave their injured star a standing ovation when he stepped onto the court for the first time with 5:34 remaining in the first quarter. That the Indiana Pacers crushed the Miami Heat by 23 points, and moved within a game of the final playoff spot was secondary.

This was all about Paul George.

George said he thinks about that Aug. 1 game in Las Vegas often, the one held solely to showcase USA Basketball for the fans. The one that ended after the Pacers star went down in a heap with what would be announced as a compound fracture of his right fibula and tibia. The pregame visit from Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, a little more than 24 hours before his Duke team will play in the national title contest, was as uplifting as the church service he attended before coming to the arena.

Though this was the same organization that took the LeBron James-led Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013, and lost in six games in the semis a year ago, little was expected from Indiana without its star. This season was slated as a throwaway -- for both George and the Pacers. Turns out, it has been a lost season for neither.

The Pacers have scratched and clawed to a 33-43 record and still have a postseason opportunity thanks to the lackluster state of the Eastern Conference.

And with six games to go, George can help salvage both his season and that of his franchise.

George buried his first shot -- an off-balance runner from the right side that looked awkward due to the fact he was grabbed on the play by Luol Deng -- and the sellout crowd of 18,165 went ballistic. He finished with 13 points in 15 minutes, a performance that included moments when he showed those in attendance why it wasn't all that long ago he was considered one of the elite players in the game, and arguably the best two-way player. He buried a 3-pointer from the left side early in the second quarter, knocked down a gorgeous step-back jumper over Michael Beasley late in the half, and then hit another 3 early in the second half.

"Welcome back, PG," one fan yelled.

There were also moments when George looked rusty, including on the breakaway late in the first quarter when he missed a wide-open layup after emotionally wrestling with whether to finish with authority or with precision and ease.

"It was an embarrassing moment," a smiling George said after the 112-89 win. "But I'm happy to be embarrassed at this time."

George said he felt no pain after the game, just soreness. There were no nerves, just excitement and elation to be back.

George has been practicing for the past two months, but felt Sunday was the right time. Not because it was against the Heat, but due to the fact he wanted to get a handful of games under his belt and also see if he could aid the late playoff push.

But when his mother, Paulette George, was informed on Saturday by her son that he was playing on Sunday, she was shocked and extremely nervous. The family -- George's parents, his sister, his brother-in-law and his daughter -- had come in to celebrate Easter.

"This Sunday or next Sunday?" his mom asked.

She was in favor of her son sitting out the entire season after being in attendance to watch the gruesome broken leg that captivated the nation on the first day of August. But she wasn't about to fight him on this.

"Paul wanted to be Paul," she said. "I think he felt a lot of pressure and wanted to show the fans he was back. He wanted to give them a show. ... It's resurrection day. It's like he came alive on the right day."

"It was like Christmas to us," Paul George Sr. said after the game.

There are just five games remaining and everyone understands it's a long shot for the Pacers to make the playoffs. They trail the Boston Celtics by a game and would lose the tiebreaker. But now, after a season in which the Pacers have struggled to stave off irrelevance, George has given those in Bankers Life Fieldhouse optimism.

"You could feel the energy in the crowd even before he checked in," Vogel said.

George checked out of the game with 7:46 left to another rousing ovation and an embrace with his coach. Neither said a word, but Vogel had no qualms about summing up his emotions.

"Damn, I missed you," he said.

He wasn't alone.