by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
February 25, 2013
If ever there were concerns about the possibility of Danny Granger's return injecting a moldy lemon into the fine stew the Pacers are brewing, they appeared to be dispelled with one shining moment in Saturday's victory at Detroit.
Granger, playing his first real game since last May 24 when the Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs by Miami, was showing nine months worst of rust as he missed his first eight shots. Then, finally, he hit a short jumper on the left baseline with 9:25 remaining in the game. The Pistons, down 20, called timeout, which provided a smiling Granger an opportunity to celebrate with his teammates as if he had just hit a game-winning bucket in the playoffs.
"It was fun," coach Frank Vogel said Monday. "These guys are all pulling for him and excited to have him back."
No small statement, that, because make no mistake, Granger's return has the potential to ignite chemistry issues that destroy a lot of the fun the Pacers have been having lately.
From Granger's point of view, he's led the team in scoring the past five seasons, although his average has tapered off the past three years as the talent around him has improved. He was an All-Star and the NBA's Most Improved Player four seasons ago, when he averaged 25.8 points. He turns 30 on April 20, and has one season after this one left on his contract, meaning he's still young enough to warrant another mega-deal if his knees and his numbers hold up.
From his teammates' collective viewpoint, they've been doing fine without him, having risen to second in the Eastern Conference and owning two double-figure victories over first-place Miami. Paul George took over the scoring lead in Granger's absence and became an All-Star. Lance Stephenson has stepped into the starting position Granger left behind and flourished.
Granger, who received an injection in his left knee to help heal a tendon, hopes to be 100 percent by the playoffs, but will play no more than 20 minutes off the bench in this week's three games. The plan is for him to re-enter the starting lineup at some point, however, which will mean fewer shots for some players, fewer minutes for others and no minutes at all for one or two others who get bumped from the playing rotation.
It's a splashy return with several ripple effects. But if any of his teammates are unhappy about it, they are putting on Oscar-worthy performances to hide it. George, while hardly willing to go back to last season's 12-point-a-game role, has already said he welcomes Granger's return. Stephenson has already said he doesn't mind going to the second unit, where he'll have a greater role in the offense. Rookie Orlando Johnson, yet another pleasant surprise this season, has already said he's willing to drop out of the playing rotation if Granger makes the team better.
Granger, meanwhile, seems prepared to shift from star to supporting cast member, and in fact knows he couldn't resume his previous role even if he wanted to because of his rehabbing knee.
"I don't need to be the player I was before," he said. "We have such a talented squad. We have five guys (four, actually) who are either an All-Star or have been an All-Star. We're a really, really deep team.
"We have seven or eight guys who don't care how many touches they get. Sometimes David West will score 30 points and the next game he'll take five shots. Same with Paul. Sometimes he likes to pass more than he likes to shoot. George Hill, same way. Nobody on our team really worries about scoring a lot of points, we just like to pass the ball around, move it and get good shots for each other, and that's what makes a team special. We don't have that one player who has to get 20 shots a game or he's going to be mad."
There is precedent within Pacers' history for Granger's situation. Lessons, too. Reggie Miller led the team in scoring for 10 consecutive years, but gracefully stepped aside during the 1999-2000 season when Jalen Rose emerged and took over the scoring lead. Rose led the scoring that season and the next, but then seemed to chafe at the idea of making room for Jermaine O'Neal, and wound up being traded in 2002.
Miller, meanwhile, extended his career and his favorable reputation by accepting a niche role. He was the team's fifth-leading scorer in his final season, 2004-05, but still productive and vital.
Now it's Granger's turn to downshift. If he can live up to the standards of this team's league-leading defense, get his share of rebounds and shoot well from the three-point line, a good time can be had by all. As Miller could tell him, it's an easier job description than he had before, when he had to carry the scoring load. Ultimately, the hope is that he and George can feed off one another and make life easier for one another, and hell for defenses.
"I think it's going to be a relief for Danny,” team president Donnie Walsh said. “(Defenses) have another guy out there they have to focus on, and that can create plays for him. Danny can do that for Paul, too. It should make it easier for the two of them.”
The Pacers have a special mix of talent and chemistry at the moment, one that takes years to achieve and often doesn't last for long. It will be one of the great achievements of Granger's career if he can make it all even better.
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