by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
June 4, 2013, 3:55 AM
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MIAMI – Over in the corner of the Pacers' locker room, while the players offered their postmortems on the season that had just ended with a Game 7 loss to Miami, Danny Granger was suddenly talking. Talking optimistically, and at length, about next season.
It was a revelation to reporters, who had not heard from Granger since he abruptly decided to shut down his season on March 28, the day he was expected to return for a game in Dallas, the first of a four-game road trip. Feeling too much in pain and limited by a piece of scar tissue on the patella tendon in his left knee, he opted to have surgery instead. He had played just five games earlier in the season, starting in late February, after pulling himself out of the lineup the day before the start of the regular season because of pain in the knee.
Granger had surgery on April 8 to remove the scar tissue. He has recently been working out and rehabbing his knee, traveling with the team and dressing for their practices, but has remained out of reach of reporters.
Now, with the off-season officially begun, he was ready to look ahead. He'll return to a much different situation than the one he left behind, however. The Pacers' leading scorer for the five seasons prior to this one, he'll likely become a role player. But the role he envisions for himself is the role he most desires: a starter and a scorer, but one who doesn't have to carry nearly as much of the offensive load as before his injury.
Granger has allies in Paul George, who replaced him as the team's leading scorer this season, and Lance Stephenson, who replaced him in the starting lineup.
George was voted the NBA's Most Improved Player this past season and became an All-Star, the same honors Granger received in 2009. While George was an understudy to Granger in George's first two seasons in the league, Granger will likely become the supporting cast member when he returns.
“We both can feed off each other.” George said. “He's done it. I've seen him do it so I know he can do it. That's why I enjoyed playing with him my two years when we were on the court together. So I'll feel comfortable. I love that we can play together. We can attack the same way Miami can attack, with two dominant wings. That's scary. That's real scary for this league.”
Stephenson, meanwhile, says he won't mind moving back to the bench. He started 72 of the 78 games in which he played this season, and averaged 8.8 points. He had some memorable games in the playoffs, including a 25-point outing when the Pacers closed out New York in the second round, and 20 in Game 4 of the series against Miami.
Coming off the bench could allow him to back up both guard positions, and bring major improvement to the Pacers' second unit.
“I'm ready for any challenge,” Stephenson said. “If Danny comes back, that's great for us. We'll be a better team. No one can stop us with me coming off the bench as a sixth man.
“I just want him to get healthy. We'll all get ready for next season and show everybody we're ready for the challenge.”
George believes Stephenson could excel in a backup role.
“I see Lance possibly winning the Sixth Man award, because he can play relaxed,” George said. “He's a guy who can create instant offense. Him coming off the bench as a sixth man and being a facilitator and scorer … it brings another dimension to our bench.”
Here's part of the exchange between an upbeat Granger and reporters following the Pacers' 99-76 loss to the Heat at American Airlines Arena:
Q. You were around for the lean years, touch on the joy you felt watching this team grow?
A. I'm so happy. I don't know how to describe it. My wife said, 'You've been happy just walking around here' (at home). It's just exciting to see us doing so well. I've been here a lot of the years we weren't doing so well … it's been impressive to see (the younger players) grow.”
Q. How confident are you that you'll be 100 percent next year and be able to contribute?
A. Oh, I'm confident. My rehab has probably another month-and-a-half to two months. It's just a matter of time.
Q What do you think this series will do for this team?
A. Over the last three years, the experience that we've had has led us to this point. Even when we lost to the Bulls in the playoffs, 4-1, the next year we lose to Miami in six and now we lose in the conference finals. All that experience builds. No team just jumps to the forefront. You have to experience those moments. So, it's just another building block.
Q. What do you tell these guys about what they've been through?
A. I tell them to learn from it. You have to learn from every downfall that you experience in this league and it starts when you get drafted. We've had the opportunity to play on the big stage in the Eastern Conference finals. We lost in Game 7. Yeah, it hurts. You learn from this and this is what catapults you to the NBA championship next year, because, hey, we were here before, this is the type of intensity this game is going to bring forth. Once you experience that, it's not unexpected.
Q. You were supposed to play that night in Dallas. When did you decide to shut it down? Did you just wake up that morning and the pain was too much?
A. It wasn't the pain, it was the fact I couldn't do what I wanted to do. According to the MRIs, we saw what was in there and we thought I could play with it, but I couldn't. They removed it and we went on from there. I wasn't going to play on one leg.
Q. What happens next year if you're at full strength?
A. It's scary. It's really scary. What (George) can do and what I can do, it's exciting. For so many years I had to carry the load. It's tough. It's tough on your body. I was telling another reporter, now I've got a 23-year-old I can tell, 'Here you go, go and do this. Go get it. Go get us a bucket.' Not to mention having a big man (Roy Hibbert) you can just toss the ball into and say, 'Yeah, score a bucket for me and I'll run back to the other end. I've never had that before.
Q. Do you expect to become a complementary player to those guys?
A. I don't know. We haven't played together for an extended period where we were both featured. Paul's so creative with the ball, he's our playmaker. Being in 25, 30 pick-and-rolls in a game, that's not me. Paul's our playmaker. The thing I've always done is score the ball.
What's funny is Paul's more of a facilitator. He can score when he wants to. When you have a guy who's a scorer and a guy who's a facilitator and a scorer, that's a great combination to have. It's kind of like LeBron (James), he can score but he wants to facilitate. Paul, he has such natural ability with the basketball … him being our playmaker, he can get everybody shots. I can do whatever.
Q. What's the mental process like when you go from, I have to score 25 points for us to have a chance to win, to I don't have to do that.
A. It's a relief. I'm not 25 anymore. Going out to get 22, 23 points a game is tough, it's hard. I'm 30 now, I'll gladly defer to the younger teammates and put more of the burden on them. I can still carry a heavy load, but not as much as I have in the past. I don't want to. That's not even a question.
Q. You know your contract situation; you've got one year left on it. Do you think about what's going to happen beyond next year?
A. I can't think that far ahead. There's a salary cap, and you only have so much money as a team. There's only so much Donnie (Walsh) and them can do about it. I think all that will work itself out, honestly. I've got a whole other year left, and my main focus is getting healthy.
Q. Do you wonder if it's going to be your last run with the organization?
A. Not really. Even with the salary cap, if the team is a legit contender you'll go over it to keep your team together. It just depends on how next year plays out, basically.