INDIANAPOLIS — After his Houston Rockets handed the Pacers their sixth straight loss on Monday, head coach Kevin McHale was asked when his own superstar planned on returning to the floor from injury.
Dwight Howard has missed 38 games this season for the Rockets due to knee problems. He was upgraded from “out” to “doubtful against the Pacers. However, he remained in a suit on the sidelines and had a front row seat for the James Harden show on Monday.
McHale’s stance on Howard and the timetable of his return was interesting when compared to how the Pacers have discussed Paul George’s return.
Here’s McHale’s full quote on Howard:
“We were just talking about trying to get him back. We’re so down on bodies, we don’t have a lot of practice time. We know we have to start throwing him out there and just letting him get some minutes, whether he starts off at 15 or 20 minutes. He’s got to start playing here soon. Otherwise the season is just going to go by. You can’t wait for the playoffs to come back.“
While we’re dealing with two different players and two different types of injuries here, McHale’s answer was much more simple and to the point than what Larry Bird, Frank Vogel and George himself have been giving over the past few months — especially recently. In fact, the final three sentences from McHale sums up the same situation the Pacers and George are in now, although they refuse to tackle it head on when asked other than Vogel.
Back on Feb. 3, where the Pacers had lost eight of their last 10 games before a fast approaching trade deadline, Bird was open about a George comeback, saying if George is healthy, then the Pacers would put him out there. That same day, Vogel had a different opinion: “I don’t believe he’s going to play this year,” Vogel said.
Things can change and they sure did. Mar. 1 came — the day George said he would like to start going 100 percent in practice — and George returned to practice. Then came the Mar. 14 date he set for himself as a possible return.
Since then, there’s been mixed messages and plenty of confusion as to when George might be back. Sure, George’s injury isn’t exactly common for NBA players and there’s a mental hurdle he has to leap, and that’s not even factoring in the time it takes to get into game shape. Those are all factors that could be playing in here, but the sense of Bird, Vogel and George not being on the same page when it comes to his injury remains.
On Monday, George spoke to the media again.
“I still don’t know when my return date will be,” George told the media. “I wanted it to be March 14, but that obviously didn’t happen. We’re just being smart about the situation. When the time’s ready, I’ll be back out there.”
That makes sense. Much more sense than throwing out dates of potential returns. But, wait…
All of this talk was sparked by an ESPN report from Brian Windhorst, saying the Pacers were targeting this week for George’s return. However, George shot down the report on Monday, saying he never spoke to Windhorst, so he wasn’t sure where that came from.
So what’s next?
The Pacers are currently a game out of the final playoff spot and they’re behind two teams — the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets. Also, they’re just a half a game up on the Brooklyn Nets. It’s potentially going to be a four-team race for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference between the Pacers and those three teams. The Miami Heat have a 1.5 game lead on the Celtics and are the same distance away from the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Pacers, too. Over the remaining 12 games, they’ll square off with ten teams who are either going to be in the playoffs or are contending for a spot. They play Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Boston and Charlotte during that stretch. And all of this is coming at a time where they aren’t playing their best basketball, especially on the defensive end.
That leaves George and the Pacers with 12 games to get him re-acclimated — game shape, chemistry, figuring out rotations, and multiples teammates who have never played on the same team as George getting accustom to him. That’s a 23-day time frame.
To put it simply, George and the Pacers are running out of time if they plan on making this work. The idea that he can just hop right in with a few games to go and him seamlessly fitting in for a playoff run, should they be fortunate enough to secure one, is a bit far-fetched.
McHale put it best when talking about Howard. “He’s got to start playing here soon. Otherwise the season is just going to go by. You can’t wait for the playoffs to come back.”
The same goes for Paul George.