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Injuries Just Opportunities for Pacers

by Mark Montieth |

March 26, 2013, 12:46 AM

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Injuries are bad things for teams, in theory. The Pacers, however, treat them as opportunities.

Danny Granger goes down, Paul George becomes an All-Star.

David West goes down, Tyler Hansbrough runs off double-doubles as a starter and Jeff Pendergraph establishes himself off the bench.

Lance Stephenson goes down, Gerald Green leads the team in scoring as a starter and Orlando Johnson goes for a career-high off the bench.

Just think how good the Pacers can become if they could figure a way to lose a few more starters?

We jest on that one, of course, but so far injuries have come packaged in silver linings this season. It was never more evident than in Monday's 100-94 victory over Atlanta, when the Pacers' reserves – three of whom started – were crucial to building a lead that peaked at 28 points before all but six points were given back.

The strength of the bench has been a major question mark at times throughout the season, but games like this one provide hope. Each of the reserves, aside from rookies Miles Plumlee and Ben Hansbrough, have proven themselves in stretches throughout the season. If they can come together during that stretch known as the postseason, hope for a stretch run improves dramatically.

“I feel good about our depth,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We have quality basketball players at every position. If guys go down, it's not going to be the end of the world for us.”

Monday, the Pacers were missing Danny Granger (knee), David West (back), George Hill (groin) and Lance Stephenson (hip). All four could be back on Wednesday, when they open a four-game road trip in Houston. We'll categorize that as a good thing, but you never know with these guys. Hansbrough and Green have been erratic off the bench, and Pendergraph tends not to play at all when West and Hansbrough are both healthy. Granger, meanwhile, will no doubt need time to shake off 10 months of rust, aside from his aborted five-game comeback a month ago.

The team that takes the court on Wednesday could look dramatically different than the one that walked off the court Monday. Chemistry could be an issue for awhile, as players become reacquainted and roles are renewed. Still, the possibility of a roster that legitimately goes 12-deep is tantalizing for the Pacers, who need depth and balance to overcome their lack of the kind of superstar who can virtually carry a team by himself.

There were shake-my-head moments in the first half, when Johnson and Pendergraph played so well that Vogel adjusted his planned rotation pattern and left them in for the entire period. Johnson had a career-high 15 points in barely more than 16 minutes in the half. Pendergraph had 12 points, and finished with 14, matching his season-high.

Those two scored 23 of the Pacers' final 28 points in the second quarter. Sam Young's three-pointer accounted for three of the others, and Roy Hibbert managed to take a stand for the starters with a left-handed jump-hook.

Both hit 5-of-6 shots in the second period. Both hit a three-pointer, Pendergraph's coming on an assist from Johnson. Pendergraph was so ingrained that he exchanged trash talk with Hawks forward Josh Smith, which earned both a technical foul. During halftime, Atlanta legend Dominique Wilkins, now a broadcaster for the team, was muttering amazement over Pendergraph's performance in the media room.

“It didn't feel like anybody was guarding me,” he said while Johnson dressed next to him. “I'm like, Man, that's kind of silly, let me just go ahead and drop these on in here.”

That included the three-pointer from the left corner, which was just the third such attempt of his three-year career – all coming this season – and the second he has made.

“Were you reluctant to shoot that one?” he was asked afterward.

“Negative,” he smiled. “Zero hesitation. That's how we draw them up.”

One of the best things about most of the reserves, especially Johnson and Pendergraph, is that they haven't established themselves to the point they can be unhappy with their roles, even when their role is to not play. Johnson has been designated a role model for his willingness to play within the offense by both Vogel and Green. It will be difficult for Vogel to find minutes for Johnson if everyone is healthy, but he won't hesitate to do so.

“I had to wait my turn at the beginning,” said Johnson, who played in just three of the first 32 games, and made four appearances with the Development League Fort Wayne Mad Ants. “Once I got my chance I decided to roll with it. I want to keep proving to these guys I'm an elite level player. I just want to let them know I'm ready.”

Gradually, the concerns that have stalked the Pacers through the season are fading. Hibbert is playing well consistently. In fact, his teammates might consider remembering him in the fourth quarter. He was ignored far too often in Saturday's loss at Chicago and again on Monday. The bench has improved, and could be strong by season's end if everyone is available.

The greatest concern now is at point guard. Augustin, starting for Hill, had been scoreless in three of the five games previous to Monday. He was the exception in that he didn't take advantage of his enhanced opportunity against the Hawks, scoring just six points on 1-of-6 shooting and committing six turnovers. Ben Hansbrough, the third option, failed to score or get off a shot in 11 ½ minutes, but did have three assists and just one turnover. It seemed telling that Paul George usually brought the ball upcourt while Hansbrough was in the game, saving him from going against the defense of a quicker point guard.

All in all, though, the Pacers' bench is improving, even if it's difficult at times to know who its members are. Now it's a question of whether it continues to produce if and when everyone is healthy.

“I've seen what we can do in practice, I've seen what we can do at times in games,” said the recently re-emerged Green, who scored 19 points on Monday. “We just have to put it together. Sometimes it's the timing of it, and right now we're coming around at the right time. If we can continue to get better and stay humble, when playoff time comes, the sky's the limit for us.”

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