Posted May 24 2012 11:29AM
INDIANAPOLIS -- Danny Granger started this. Danny Granger can end it. Maybe not in storybook fashion, but certainly better than it stands right now.
The circumstances could be better, certainly. Granger, the Indiana Pacers' veteran forward and leading scorer, has pain in the left ankle he sprained Tuesday in Miami, a first-half injury in Game 5 of the playoff series against the Heat that forced him out and exposed his team in the second half.
Granger's reputation has taken a beating too, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade calling him out for starting the "tough" talk in the series. What started with Granger puffing up to say he wouldn't be intimidated by James -- whose skills and size (6-foot-8, 250 pounds) do that naturally anyway -- has escalated from technicals and jawing to flagrant fouls, blood and now suspensions of Miami's Udonis Haslem and Dexter Pittman for Game 6 Thursday at Banker Life Fieldhouse. James and Wade at various points have laughed at, scoffed at and chided Granger for donning a fake-thug cloak that doesn't seem to suit him.
Even Granger's explanation -- that he wanted to set a tone for his Indiana teammates -- rang hollow after Pacers team president Larry Bird sent a pointed message through the team's traveling newspaperman, calling them all "soft" after their 115-83 smackdown in Game 5. Granger wasn't Bird's Exhibit A -- it was more the way the other guys folded and got outscored 59-38 after Granger was yanked for good early in the third quarter.
Without him as a scoring threat, the Heat could sag and trap on center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West more than ever, choking off Indiana's inside advantage. Without him as a scoring option and floor leader, the other Pacers looked lost. Said Paul George: "We weren't prepared for Danny to go down. He did and we have to be ready for that. We preach togetherness all year long, and [Game 5] was a perfect way to show togetherness and we didn't do so."
Still, the Pacers were minus-4 with Granger on the court before he got hurt. He's the one who picked up three technical fouls in Games 2, 3 and 4, responding to James and Wade after foul whistles, trying apparently to be anything but soft, then hearing that tactic termed "stupid" by James.
Granger is the guy, too, who took a while to get going in this series, scoring 7 and 11 points in the first two games while shooting 1-of-10 from 3-point range. He was better in Game 3 (17 points) and Game 4 (20) -- though still a volume shooter (14-of-33) -- and had made 10 of his last 19 shots from the arc before he got hurt.
But now there's no wiggle room. Granger's next miss might be his last. Till October.
Granger isn't the only Indiana player who should take Bird's criticism to heart. West and Hibbert don't dare combine for another game of 18 points, as they did in Games 4 and 5. George is averaging 9.8 points in the series while shooting 35.7 percent. Starting point guard George Hill? Fifteen assists, 15 turnovers.
There's no telling which of them might respond to Bird's comments. Back in 1984, after the former Boston Celtics star said his team was playing like "sissies," Kevin McHale clotheslined the Lakers' Kurt Rambis in the next game and the Celtics went on to win the NBA championship in seven games. Everyone remembers McHale's hurting on Rambis, but few recall Dennis Johnson's steely response. After scoring just three points in Game 3, he locked in to score 22, 22, 20 and 22 the rest of the way.
So leave the takedowns at this point to the Haslems, Tyler Hansbroughs and Lou Amundsons. Granger needs to respond with his best, now that it matters most.
It is a tall order: If Granger is able to play effectively on his bum ankle, produce offensively and hold down James maybe just a little -- 82 points through three games is acceptable, 70 points in the past two is not -- while pushing Game 6 to the final minutes or this series back to Miami for Game 7, he will acquit himself well.
If he does little or none of that, hobbled or not, the questions might linger, the laughter might echo, from summer into fall.
Granger started this. He can end it on his terms.
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