TORONTO — So many of Paul George’s All-Star teammates and opponents were on the floor 18 months ago, the night his career was put in peril by a gruesome leg injury in a scrimmage with USA Basketball.
It has been a long, difficult road back to the rising star he was before a bone in his right leg popped through his skin on that August night in Las Vegas. Surrounded by so many of those elite faces again in Toronto on Sunday night, George has never looked more like the player that has made the Indiana Pacers relevant again. Truth be told, he looked even better.
George led all players with 41 points and made nine 3-pointers in the East’s 196-173 loss to West, finishing one basket shy of breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game All-Star scoring record.
"For me to be here just being back as an All-Star was special. But to be able to put on a show and have fun and enjoy this moment, get back to playing how I play pre-injury is special," George said. "I’ve just been blessed. I’m very thankful and very grateful."
Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook won the MVP award with 31 points in the victory, but it was George who stood out above all of the game’s best players, just like he did before his right leg awkwardly hit the basketball stanchion in that USA scrimmage, bringing tears to his teammates’ eyes.
"I had a hard-fought summer, hard-fought rehab year," George said. "It was just a very upward climb. It took every day and really every moment of rehab to get through it. There were a lot of days where I felt like I was down and out, but just stayed with it."
Thanks to George’s emergence as one of the NBA’s bright young stars, the Pacers had climbed up the Eastern Conference ladder to assert themselves as legitimate challengers. George had a great chance to be in Team USA’s plans for the London Olympics, but his leg snapped grotesquely and had many, including George himself, wondering if he would ever play again.
He missed all but six games last season, but his ability to return even for the end of the season was a shock in and of itself. Playing in those games gave him a chance to get a little bit of confidence back, to believe that returning to basketball’s highest level was possible, and he took off like a rocket at the start of this season.
While he was injured, George worked on two of his game’s weaknesses — ball-handling and perimeter shooting. He returned this season a more well-rounded player and averaged 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the first month of the season. Those numbers have dipped expectedly as the season has worn on, but George has his swagger back.
"He’s back," Pelicans star Anthony Davis said. "The way he shoots the ball, the way he attacks the rim, his game is very unique. Basically he was showing guys tonight that he’s back to rare form."
On a night where all eyes started on Lakers star Kobe Bryant in his 18th and final All-Star game, they couldn’t help but drift on to George as the shots kept falling and the ball kept finding him.
Both teams broke the previous record for points in a game, with the West eclipsing the previous mark with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Defence wasn’t an afterthought, it was never even considered — except in the final 30 seconds.
Sitting on 41 points, George had the ball on the right wing, needing one bucket to surpass Chamberlain’s mark set in 1962. That’s when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green got right in George’s face, hounding him all over the court in the only possession of defence played the entire game.
"We don’t want any records like that broken on us," Green said with a chuckle. "Just trying to contest the shot."