George's long-anticipated return still on hold as Pacers try to end slide, make playoff push

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INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George might be close to playing shape.

He's still not there yet.

The Pacers' two-time All-Star told reporters Monday that although he's eager to clear the final hurdle in his 7½-month recovery from a broken right leg by returning to game action, he's not going to push himself to go too soon.

"We want to make sure I'm as close to 100 (percent) as possible," George said. "It's not coming down to you know, 'Paul's feeling good, let's get him out there.' It's about making sure everything's where I'm comfortable, where the medical staff is comfortable, where the front office is comfortable."

The temptation, of course, is to make it back now.

Indiana (30-39) has lost five straight and has slid from the No. 6 spot in the East into a tie for ninth, which would keep them out of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, George has been looking and sounding more comfortable since returning to full practice in late February. He said he's moving better, feeling more confident and has become a more regular part of pregame warmups and post-practice shooting drills.

But it's unclear when fans should expect to see him suit up in his new No. 13 jersey.

"We've had conversations all year about many different (target) dates, and it all comes down to he's not going to play before he's ready and Larry (Bird) will make the final call on that," coach Frank Vogel said, referring to the Pacers president of basketball operations. "But the medical team is advising it, the coaching staff is watching how he's playing and we'll make a group decision."

George was one of the league's brightest young stars before running into a basketball stanchion during a U.S. national team scrimmage Aug. 1 in Las Vegas. He had surgery to repair the leg within hours of the injury and most expected the 24-year-old to miss the entire season.

Team doctors told the Pacers the bone should be fully healed by March 1.

After returning to practice three days sooner than expected, George acknowledged his target for a return was March 14 or March 16 — even though team officials never established an official timeline. He's still hoping to make it back this season.

"You know if it gets to a point where I'm feeling great consistently, then yeah, I do feel comfortable and confident in my abilities now and more important playing, hopefully during the season," George said.

That has not tamped down speculation about his return.

On Friday night, a report suggested George could have played as early as Saturday against Brooklyn and that the Pacers hoped to have him back sometime this week. George did not play against the Nets, and the Pacers have already ruled him out of Monday night's game against Houston.

Indiana visits Washington on Wednesday and Milwaukee on Thursday before hosting Dallas on Sunday.

Yes, George is eager to help give his teammates another scoring option.

"I'm competitive, I obviously want to be out there and I feel like I can help those guys now," he said.

But the Pacers don't expect to see him back in All-Star form this season, so they're playing it safe.

Besides, Vogel said, George hasn't yet been cleared to play by Indiana's medical team, and even if he had been, he wouldn't be ready.

"There are a lot of layers to that," Vogel said. "He's not ready. He hasn't reached a level where we feel he's ready to play.

All George really wants to do is get back to playing basketball and end all the questions about when he'll be back.

"Honestly, it's getting annoying," he said. "I think people are waiting to see me out there, I'm waiting to get out there."

George isn't the only injured NBA star being monitored Monday in Indy.

Houston coach Kevin McHale said All-Star Dwight Howard would not play against the Pacers even though he had reportedly been upgraded to doubtful Sunday, and forward Josh Smith (ankle) is active but could be limited. And Rockets forward Trevor Ariza, who has been ill, will start if he can play. But Ariza is listed as a game-time decision.

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