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With Granger, Pacers Have Much to Gain

by Mark Montieth |

March 1, 2013, 1:02 AM

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The Danny Granger Experiment becomes more intriguing with every game he plays, providing as many questions as answers. Will he return to his norm before the playoffs? How much will he disrupt the chemistry while trying to do so? And should he start or come off the bench?

Granger showed flashes of the player who led the Pacers in scoring the past five seasons and played in an All-Star game during their 99-91 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday. He scored 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting, which isn't a big deal unless you've sat out most of the last nine months because of a faulty knee and hit just 3-of-17 shots in the first two games of your comeback.

He's still got a long way to go, though, which was a major element of the silver lining that framed Thursday's loss, a game the Clippers led by as many as 17 points until a late Pacers run reopened the mystery of the outcome after many fans had already left the building.

"We didn't play a very good basketball game," coach Frank Vogel said, acknowledging his team's 20 turnovers and the Clippers' 50 – 50! – points in the paint.

One could question the Pacers' postseason legitimacy after a game like Thursday's, except for a couple of crucial factors: Granger should continue to improve, and Roy Hibbert will return. Of all the NBA's division leaders, the Pacers have the most opportunity to get better between now and the playoffs.

Hibbert sat out the game while serving the one-game suspension that resulted from the don't-call-it-a-brawl in Tuesday's win over Golden State. Like Granger back when the Pacers were struggling, he enhanced his reputation with his absence. Hibbert has been exasperating much of the season, missing enough easy shots to fill a really large basket, if missed shots could actually fill something. His defense around the basket, however, has been a major element of the team's league-leading defense, and was sorely missed against the Clippers. It wasn't the most points in the paint the Pacers have allowed this season – they gave up 60 at Utah with Hibbert – but he likely would have made a difference.

His offense has improved lately, too. Since the win over Charlotte just before the All-Star break, he's hit 20-of-36 shots and averaged 12.2 points, which is all the Pacers will need from him most games.

So, get Hibbert back – which happens Friday in Toronto – and get Granger back at a level resembling his former self, and the Pacers could qualify as a contender in the playoffs.

"We're not where we can be," Granger said. "We're still making strides."

Granger declared himself to be 65 percent of his potential following Thursday's loss. He's gradually feeling and looking better, but said he's still at least a couple of weeks away from achieving normalcy. He's rehabbing on the run; if this were early in the season, he still wouldn't be playing.

He showed flashes of his former self against the Clippers, though. He scored nine points in the first half, hitting 4-of-6 shots and his only three-point attempt. He made a few of his shots off the dribble, making moves to free himself from the defender.

"That's instinctual," he said. "For every one of those you get, I get two that aren't instinctual. At times I didn't want to jump. I'm not saying I couldn't, but I didn't know if I should go for a rebound. It's just a process, man."

The question looming over Granger's on-the-fly restoration is whether he should be injected into a starting lineup that has been getting along fine without him, or come off the bench – something he hasn't done in the majority of games since his rookie season in 2005-06. The argument can be made that he should become the star of the second unit, but the argument can't be made convincingly without seeing how the starting lineup functions with him.

It's worth trying, whenever Granger is physically ready for it. The Pacers will need every asset they can muster to proceed deep into the playoffs, and their greatest potential likely is with Granger starting. Lance Stephenson, who would be demoted to the second unit if Granger starts, gets better and better, and was typically fearless and reckless against the Clippers with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists and four turnovers.

Granger, however, brings four extra inches of length for rebounding and defense, slightly better three-point shooting (if he regains his career norm of .384) and 22 games of playoff experience.

Vogel remains committed to starting Granger at some point, without promising anything.

"You have the ability to have two 6-8, 6-9 wing defenders, wing rebounders," Vogel said earlier in the week, smiling at the thought of pairing Granger with Paul George. "You have another guy you can run offense through, and the three-point shooting that he brings makes everyone else better. There's countless ways he makes us much better on both ends of the court."

Granger claims not to care. Or, perhaps more accurately, he hasn't thought about it given the more pressing issues.

"I can embrace any role," he said. "Once I stop worrying about my leg and can just play, we'll see what else comes.

"I'm just happy to be on the court, honestly. I haven't played in nine months. Whether I'm starting or not, that's so far away from what I'm thinking now ... 90 percent of my time when I'm playing I'm thinking of my leg, and can I do this move and can I do that move."

The best role for Granger will present itself in time. For now, it's not even the best question. That would be, "Will he become Danny Granger again?" All other inquiries are premature.

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