TORONTO – Paul George boldly proclaimed in September he could be the NBA’s Most Valuable player this season.
“Sure, OK,” people said in patronizing tones.
George still hadn’t proved he was back from a ghastly compound leg fracture. And besides, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who immolates on a nightly basis, and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James automatically are considered the top candidates.
On the court Sunday night with the best in his sport, George outscored them all.
The Indiana Pacers forward should have been All-Star Game MVP here in the Air Canada Centre, but he played for the losing team. The West beat the East, 196-173, easily the highest-scoring All-Star Game.
George scored a game-high 41 points, one shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s 54-year-old record. George made nine three-pointers on 19 attempts, each a record. He added five rebounds and an assist in nearly 27 minutes played.
“So much special stuff wrapped around this one,” George said. “It would have been a special moment to win (MVP). But really it was really just about coming here and enjoying being with these guys and having a good showing.”
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who won last year’s All-Star MVP with 41 points, lifted the trophy again. Westbrook had a team-high 31 points, a team-high eight rebounds and five assists in 22 minutes, 11 seconds .
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, an All-Star for his 18th and final time, was the sentimental favorite to win MVP but didn’t post the numbers.
He came out of the game for a standing ovation and chants of “Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!”
Bryant finished with 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists. All but one rebound and three assists came in the first half, nearly putting him on a triple-double pace at halftime.
But as George heated up – after three quarters he already had tied Carmelo Anthony’s record with eight three pointers – the personal comeback tale grew larger.
“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.”
The video of George’s injury should come with a warning for viewers to brace themselves or not even bother trying to watch.
In a Team USA exhibition 19 months ago, he sprinted to make up ground to defend a James Harden breakaway layup. George leaped and came down awkwardly, his right foot jamming where the stanchion meets the floor. His tibia and fibula snapped. The Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas went silent. Players, towels pressed over their mouths, looked in horror.
“I’m actually amazed looking at him,” West coach Gregg Popovich said. “Every time he runs up and down the floor and jumps up for those dunks and everything, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, the human body must be amazing.’
“To come back and play at that level athletically, it just stuns me every time I see him out there. … I know it’s taken him a while, but it’s pretty incredible.”
The Pacers struggled without him last season. They failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. They had reached the Eastern Conference finals the previous two seasons.
Indiana is sixth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Central Division at the All-Star break.
“For me to be here, just being back as an All-Star was special,” George said. “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.
“I’ve just been blessed. I’m very thankful and very grateful.”