Posted May 15 2012 11:47AM
MIAMI -- Danny Granger lived through one of those playoff nightmares in Game 1 against the Miami Heat on Sunday. The Indiana Pacers' acknowledged leader and best player, Granger shot the basketball 10 times and missed nine. He scored 11 points below his season average in a game Indiana lost by nine. He saw the man he was guarding, LeBron James, explode for 26 points in the second half as if no one was guarding him.
So afterward, Pacers coach Frank Vogel apologized to Granger.
Wait, what? Vogel apologized to Granger? When a seven-year veteran and one-time All-Star looks like a rookie in the biggest game of his pro career, you might have expected the mea culpa coming from the other direction.
But no, this was Vogel seeking out Granger.
"I did. Absolutely," Vogel said after practice Monday. "Any time a guy ... y'know, this is a big stage, he's our leading scorer. I've got to share some responsibility for making sure he's involved in that."
Granger also referred to himself as a "decoy" in his team's attack against Miami, which had a vaguely Randy Moss-ish sound to it. Typically, a decoy wouldn't get 10 shots. But the Pacers focused heavily in their early game plan on getting Roy Hibbert and other teammates going offensively -- Granger took only three shots in the first half (tied for sixth-most on his squad, as long as we're counting) and was scoreless. And it wasn't even a bad strategy, since the Pacers were up 48-42 by then and Granger's man, James, had scored only six points.
But in the third quarter, with Miami's Chris Bosh down and out with an abdominal strain, the Heat looked more to James and cohort Dwyane Wade. That put Granger even more to work, chasing the league's newly minted Most Valuable Player and banging into and through pick and rolls, sometimes two or three on the same shot clock.
At the other end, Granger tried to get busy, too -- he finally scored at 7:24 on a long 3-pointer and got to the line for four points near the quarter's end. But the rest of the way? Disastrous.
James romped for 16 more points in the final 12 minutes. Granger? He went 0-for-4, no free throws. At one point, Vogel subbed in Paul George for Granger. But the second-year guard didn't just look like a rookie Sunday, he looked like a rookie deer playing his first NBA game in the headlights. A slam dunk contestant in February, George was tentative going to the rim in Game 1, bound up by Indiana's and his own foul trouble.
But the Pacers would be happy if George could just assert himself defensively in this series, his wingspan and quickness making him an excellent match for Wade and/or James (George's lack of experience is not so excellent). Granger, 6-foot-9 and 29 years old, seems willing to sacrifice his offense in this series, too, if that's what it takes to properly slow down James. But that would be too great a price for Vogel and their team to pay.
They need Granger to make James expend at least a little energy on the defensive end and maybe pick up a couple of quick fouls. They need him to be ... well, not necessarily a volume shooter or 25-a-night scorer, but a solid two-way player and the guy who leads his club out of darkness down the stretch.
"At times, that will be myself or [David West]," Granger said. "But for the most part, our team is ... it's really fun. We're so talented, we're really talented. We go eight deep. We've got two starting point guards. Tyler Hansbrough would probably start on other teams. We're so talented, we don't have to force the issue into one spot, because a lot of guys can make plays."
Two deep, however, can become too deep if no one shoulders the responsibility. What was last team to win an NBA title without an MVP-caliber or obvious future Hall of Famer? OK, then how 'bout before Detroit in 2004? Can it be done?
"Yeah, I think it can," Granger said. "It just depends on if everyone knows their role and everyone plays their role to the best of their abilities. You have guys to score, you have guys to rebound, you have guys for defense, you have hustle guys. Everyone has to play those roles more effectively when you don't have a Kevin Durant on your team or a Kobe Bryant."
Granger isn't one of those guys. He's not a superstar and, lest he ever forget that, he's constantly reminded of that on Indianapolis radio show and Internet comment boards. But Granger is the closest thing Indiana has to a star, and on the road in the playoffs, teams rise or fall on their stars' performance. At the very least, he must be first among equals on the deep, democratic Pacers.
So his teammates will be looking to him. James and Shane Battier, who defended and rarely left Granger's side Sunday, said they are expecting more activity and resolve from him. That leaves Vogel and Granger, who want to make it up to each other -- the coach by orchestrating more movement in his offense, the player by asserting himself and communicating on the floor better -- so they can deal in congratulations after Game 2 rather than apologies.
"It's not brain surgery," Granger said. "Once you look at the tape, all the answers just pop into your head. We'll figure it out."
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