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He's back: Paul George set to return against Miami Heat

The wait is finally over. Paul George will return to the Pacers lineup Sunday against the Miami Heat.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

He targeted March 14 against the Boston Celtics. Brian Windhorst's sources said it could be as early as March 21 against the Brooklyn Nets, and Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said he had "a feeling" Paul George would return to play against Dallas on March 29. Though all of these speculative dates came and went, Indiana's star maintained that when the time was right, he would be back out there. Apparently, that time is now.

Game shoes! Time to get some burn Sunday night!!! Can't wait!!!

A photo posted by Paul George (@ygtrece) on

According to the above post from Instagram, Paul George, after missing the first 76 games of the season, will indeed be available to play on Easter against the Miami Heat, exactly eight months and four days after suffering an open tibia-fibula fracture in a Team USA scrimmage last August.

"It would be better to come back here," George said last week, with regard to possibly making his return at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "I think I owe it to the fans for them to get the first glimpse of my first night on the floor."

Coincidentally, the two-time All-Star will be making his long-awaited return against the opponent that ended Indiana's post-season run in 2014 now with the opportunity to extend his team's season in 2015. With six games remaining, the Pacers are 1.5 games back of the Miami Heat for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference standings and 2.5 games back of the Brooklyn Nets, currently in seventh.

"I hope it's an opponent where I can feel comfortable coming back," George said over the All-Star break when asked when he thought he would be able to return to game action. "Where it won't be too much pressure to perform. Where I can ease my way back in."

The All-NBA caliber defender averaged 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists last regular season against Miami.

Obviously, with George still needing game reps to bring himself nearer to that one hundredth percentile, the Pacers face an uphill climb if they are going to earn a playoff berth. However, if they do manage to squeak in as the eighth seed, George has already said that the headlines will write themselves.

"That would be ideal," the two-time All-Star said regarding the possibility of facing the Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks in the first round. "Especially if we go against Atlanta first round. Just because we were the first seed last year and that's a rematch I'm sure they want as well."

Moving forward, Larry Bird said that George's minutes will be limited as the Pacers continue to evaluate and monitor his progress.

"He has worked hard to get to this point and still has work to do," said Bird. "..but it's a positive step toward what we hope will be a full recovery at some point."

Having not played a single minute this season out of a possible 3,648, rust should no doubt be expected. As George said last week, his teammates have been playing for 5-6 months and are well-conditioned for the stretch run of the season, whereas he is just getting his legs back under him.

Nonetheless, even if the player that now will be donning No. 13 does not instantaneously resemble the player that once wore No. 24, returning to game action and clearing some of the mental hurdles sure to be present for someone suffering such a gruesome and long-debilitating injury before next season is certainly another positive step toward Paul George becoming Paul George again.

"The recovery has been a long process and this is another step in the process. I thank everyone, my family, friends, doctor, our training staff, coaches, the entire Pacers family for their support. I'm excited, but at the same time I'm aware I'm still in a rehab stage and will continue to work to get back to full strength."

No more relying on sources. No more wondering if the NBA's decision to broadcast a Pacers-Celtics holds special meaning. No more questioning if having the stage to himself on a night when the NBA only scheduled a Pacers-Bucks game means it's the right time. At long last, the speculation is over.

Welcome back, Paul George.