The Indiana Pacers moved into 9th place in the Eastern Conference with a resounding win over the Miami Heat, outscoring Miami across all four quarters en route to the 112-89 victory, moving them to within a game of the 8th seed with just five games remaining. For as dire as things looked for Indiana following their uninspired losses to Brooklyn and Boston, they look that much brighter following blowout wins over Charlotte and now Miami.
While there is still plenty of work ahead for the Pacers in the season's final five games, they took a step towards realizing that tonight. And though tonight's win was important for the totality of Indiana's season, it was equally important for the return of Indiana's leading scorer and two-time All-Star Paul George.
George made his season debut tonight, just eight months after a gruesome leg injury figured to leave him sidelined until next season. George returned to practice February 26th and announced his return yesterday. The Pacers led 15-10 (after a 9-0 start) when he checked into a standing ovation at the 5:33 mark of the first quarter. For all the expected rust accumulated over missing 76 games, George looked on point with his first shot attempt, putting Indiana up six.
Later in the first, George came up with a vintage loose ball steal, breaking free towards the basket, but getting caught up in the finish, missing a layup on the fast break. It was a play George was embarrassed to have happen, but one he was glad to have the chance to be embarrassed at.
Luis Scola was there to follow up the miss for what would become a common theme for the night. The Pacers would lead 22-19 after one thanks to seven early points from Solomon Hill as George would push the lead Indiana ahead 25-19 with a three pointer to open the second quarter. In his first stretch of the season, George had five points, two rebounds, an assist, and a steal, all while wasting no time digging in at the officials for whistles.
Indiana would maintain a lead following George's exit, with C.J. Miles hitting three second quarter threes, though Indiana struggled containing Miami on the drive, surrendering eight points to James Ennis as the Heat stormed into the lead late in the second. Five points to close the half pushed Indiana ahead 51-47 at the break.
Indiana struggled with turnovers in the first half, giving opportunities to the Heat, but Miami's struggles behind the arc (0 makes) helped work in Indiana's favor, who made eight. The Pacers also struggled putting Miami in the rearview in the third, falling behind 58-57 halfway through the quarter after Goran Dragic hit Miami's first three of the game. Indiana responded with a pair of threes of their own as part of an 11-2 run that put Indiana up 69-60 when George returned to the game.
George played seven and a half minutes in his second stretch of game action, with Indiana outscoring Miami 22-13, effectively putting the game on ice in the fourth quarter. George scored eight points in his second, including a pair of threes early in the quarter that pushed Indiana's eight point lead to a commanding 14 points.
George even got favor with his misses, as Scola followed up his last two attempts with crafty layups. Indiana lead 91-73 when George exited, but Scola wasn't finished putting the hurt on the Heat, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter as part of his season high 23 points. Scola had 12 boards to notch a double double, seven rebounds coming on the offensive glass.
The Pacers had 20 offensive rebounds, getting an additional six from Roy Hibbert, who despite being a wreck shooting the ball (2-11), was crucial in creating extra possessions for Indiana in terms of not only offensive rebounding, but on the defensive end as well, totaling three of Indiana's seven blocks on the night. The Pacers would cruise to victory by running away in the fourth quarter, outscoring Miami 35-23 to sweep all four quarters.
But as much as tonight was a team effort thanks to 14 made three pointers and a nine made free throw advantage (despite shooting just 67%), the lift Paul George provided the Pacers was almost undeniable. George had his obvious struggles; not only missing a pair of layups, but racking up three fouls and three turnovers, but far outperformed tempered expectations with everything else.
George was 5-12 from the floor, including 3-6 from three point range, hitting the two crucial threes that more or less broke Miami's back. He finished with two rebounds, two assists, and two steals on the night to add to that, moving well on defense to give Indiana some hope in the final five games of having a chance to keep opponents from routinely putting up 110 on the Pacers.
While George mostly favored the right leg in terms of shooting, making it a point to come down on his left leg, he moved well on defense and looked more fluid than would be expected for a player who spent every step remembering his last time on the court. The next step in George's progress will be to monitor how he feels moving forward.
On the bright side, George was sore, but not in pain, creating what is hopefully no setbacks in him continuing to find his footing in the next five games, which will begin Wednesday night when the Pacers face the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. On the downside, Indiana did get injury news from Rodney Stuckey, who took a nasty fall on his right wrist forcing him out of the game late. But after getting it wrapped, he currently expects to play on Wednesday.