Unbridled enthusiasm at the start of any NBA season is natural. Irrational exuberance, that’s something quite different, particularly for the Indiana Pacers this fall.
Maybe that’s why Larry Bird put back in perspective Tuesday any overly optimistic prognoses for star wing player Paul George‘s rehab and return. Yes, the world has seen footage of the Pacers’ hobbled All-Star on the court hoisting perimeter shots. It even has seen him playing a little 1-on-1 with his dog (we’ll leave any snarky comments about rival defenders to you guys).
But that’s a long, long way from the rigors and demands of NBA basketball, as Bird reminded a group of reporters. Paul, who suffered multiple fractures of his lower right leg in a gruesome injury at the Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas in early August, still is likely to miss the entire 2014-15 season.
“He’s got a rod in his leg. Holding that bone together. And it’s gotta heal,” the Pacers’ president of basketball operations said. “Looks good against his dog, and while he’s standing out there in front of you guys it looks pretty good. Other than that, he don’t do nothin’.”
George being around the team, when he’s not immersed in rehab, is good for his and his teammates’ psyches. But as determined as he has to be in his comeback from the nasty mishap, that’s how the other Pacers have to approach a difficult season that grew more grim as lesser injuries stacked up in the preseason. Power forward David West (ankle sprain) and guards George Hill (knee), C.J. Watson (foot) and Rodney Stuckey (foot) all missed time and will be unavailable or, in Stuckey’s case, limited in the team’s opener Wednesday.
Not that a Bird team would have room for sissies anyway, but the short-term figures to be rather trying. The team’s bench will be thinned by all the reserves — Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, C.J. Miles, Solomon Hill — pressed into starters’ minutes.
“We’re gonna play,” Bird said. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen. These [backup] guys are not used to playing a lot of minutes, they’re going to. It’s not really just taking your lumps. It’s just playin’ — and tryin’ to get better as we go.”
For the franchise that began last season with championship ambitions and began the postseason as the East’s No. 1 seed, the expectations have been dampened. With a roster full at 15, there’s no Bird, McHale or Parish walking through that door — or George either.
“Even when I was playin’, I was out one whole year and we had some of the guys dinged up, but somehow we found a way to battle and win some games,” Bird said. “Our expectation is to get in the playoffs. That’s what we want to do. We’re down a little bit right now, but we think we can make up for it.”
Bird heaped some praised on George Hill for the improvement he had shown before getting hurt. Also, besides cautioning the media against fast-tracking hopes about George’s return, he warned against expecting too much from center Roy Hibbert, a former All-Star whose play dropped off badly last spring. He’s not going to become Hakeem Olajuwon or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offensively, just by process of elimination or the fact that he has been tutored by both.
“Nah. Roy’s not that type of player,” Bird said. “Roy’s a defensive player. He’s got to protect the rim and, obviously, I’d like to see him score a few more points but not a lot. I think it’s important for him to rebound better than he has in the past, but we’re not putting a lot of weight on Roy’s shoulders because that’s not the type of player he is.”
The weight is on all of the Pacers and, frankly, until a lot of time and healing passes, it probably will be a little more than they can bear.