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Granger's Back, and Nothing Changes

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 21, 2013 | 1:30 a.m. ET

The question is no longer if and when Danny Granger is coming back. He's back.

The question also isn't whether Danny Granger can recover the talents that had him leading the Pacers in scoring for five consecutive seasons and playing in an All-Star game. He's 30 years old. As long as he's healthy, there's no reason he shouldn't approximate his old self.

The question that will truly impact the Pacers' season, perhaps even determine their postseason fate, is whether Danny Granger can fit into a framework that has been radically modified since he last played a meaningful role for them, back in the 2012 playoffs. Will he instinctively try to become the leading scorer again? Will he become the clanking loose part in an engine that has been humming so smoothly this season?

Of all the positive elements that came out of the Pacers' 114-81 victory over Houston at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday, Granger's role in it was the one with the greatest long-term ramifications. He shot poorly, hitting just 1-of-7 field goal attempts, and had five turnovers in his 22 minutes off the bench, to go with five points, two rebounds and two assists. But his approach to the game was exactly what coach Frank Vogel – and 18,165 fans – wanted to see.

Less than a minute after entering the game to a standing ovation with 4:05 left in the first quarter, he executed a weakside block of Dwight Howard's shot attempt in the lane. On the next defensive possession, he deflected a pass out of bounds. Shortly thereafter, he lofted a slick post feed to David West.

Any more questions?

“What I liked about it is the first way he impacted the game was on the defensive end,” Vogel said afterward. “He shared the basketball every single time that he had an opportunity to. He shot the open shots within the rhythm of the offense, and he went out and guarded. That's exactly what he has to do for this basketball team.”

Paul George, the Pacers player some presume to be most threatened by Granger's return, but also the Pacers player who was most urging the crowd to give Granger another standing ovation when Granger left the game in the fourth quarter, agreed.

“You saw it all tonight,” George said. “He was able to share the ball. He was drawing guys to him. He wasn't looking to force anything. And when he had opportunities to be aggressive and look for his shot, he did. I think that's what's your gonna see.”

Despite the meager stat line, the game will go down as one of most memorable of Granger's career. He finally returned from a layoff that extended back to May 24 of 2012, aside from five regular season games in March 2013 and a few exhibition games each of the past two seasons. He appears to be completely healthy, something no small number of observers didn't think would ever happen again, and yes, he'll play again on Sunday against Boston. And, most of all, he was showered with more love than he's ever received from the home fans since he joined the team in 2005. Absence had indeed made hearts grow fonder, particularly when Granger's return offers such enticing possibilities for a contending team.

“It was touching,” Granger said afterward.

Perhaps we've all wondered too much about the chemistry issue. Granger majored in Civil Engineering in college and could have had a scholarship to Yale, so he's obviously capable of understanding that the fundamental structure of the Pacers has changed since he was their leading scorer two seasons ago.

Granger has seen what the fans have seen, a balanced team that plays well together, but one that is led by Paul George. He knows it's a new, more prosperous era.

The Pacers are the NBA's best defensive team, a point they reinforced Friday by holding Houston – the NBA's second-highest scoring team – to a season-low 81 points. They also are one of the league's better rebounding teams. Will Granger go along with this way of playing?

“Everybody who puts on a Pacer uniform has to have an emphasis on defense and rebounding,” Vogel said before the game, quickly adding he doesn't consider Granger to be an inadequate defender or rebounder.

Granger said afterward that his seemingly one-dimensional approach was a virtual necessity in previous years, but changed when Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien as coach midway through the 2010-11 season.

“Even when I was the leading scorer, we punched the ball inside to Roy (Hibbert) and David (West),” he said. “I led the team in scoring, but I got my buckets in transition, on spot-up threes, pindowns … even two years ago, I wasn't going one-on-one. That kind of stopped after O'B left.

“The way I score, I don't have to have the ball in my hands. That's important with this team, because we have other guys who are good with the ball in their hands.”

The Pacers are 21-5, owners of the best record in the Eastern Conference. They have survived their most difficult scheduling stretch of the season, completing 10 games in which they faced seven teams with winning records and played six games on the road, and won six of them. Of their next 12 opponents, 11 currently have losing records.

And now they have Granger – a veteran player with a history of shot-making who appears willing to conform to a new standard.

How much difference can he make?

“Oh, man,” Lance Stephenson said. “We're definitely going to be unstoppable if he gets going and hits shots like he normally does and is making the right plays on defense. Nobody can mess with us after that.”

Stephenson is half of the focus of the one remaining question related to Granger's return. Stephenson has become a fan favorite for his edgy, fearless play. Friday's performance, in which he had 16 points, six rebounds and six assists, has become the new norm. His four turnovers were easily forgotten amid all the contributions, as were the mental errors, such as when he tried to dunk over a well-positioned Howard and was tied up for a jump ball.

Does Granger expect to replace Stephenson in the starting lineup?

He hedged, as he tends to do whenever the question is posed.

“That hasn't even crossed my mind yet,” he said. “We're trying to get me to the level where I'm playing, where I can handle a large workload. That hasn't crossed my mind.”

Stephenson, as he always does when the question comes up, said he doesn't care.

“It doesn't even matter who comes off the bench,” he said. “We're going to get the same amount of minutes either way. It doesn't matter who comes off the bench or who starts. We're a team. We won't let that mess up our team chemistry.”

One game into Granger's comeback, the chemistry lab appears as safe as ever from an explosion.

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