The Indiana Pacers hold a 32-21 record, which puts them at third in the Eastern Conference. That is quite an accomplishment considering Danny Granger, one of the cornerstones of their franchise over the past several years, has yet to play a game this season due to injury.
On the other hand, Indiana’s status as one of the top teams in the East might not be as impressive as it appears. The East has been inferior to the West for more than 15 years and has been particularly weak this season.
The New York teams have been resurrected from dismal streaks in the mid-2000s, but the majority of last year’s contenders in the Eastern Conference have regressed.
With Dwight Howard becoming a Laker, the Orlando franchise has collapsed. Chicago has become a middling team in the conference without Derrick Rose, and Andrew Bynum has yet to play a single game as a 76er, which has turned Philadelphia into a sub-.500 team.
Then there are the Boston Celtics. They have played better since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in January, but Rondo was the main reason why the Celtics were one game away from the NBA Finals in 2012. Perhaps the Ewing Theory has gone into effect, but Boston is an aging group that is not nearly as intimidating as it once was.
So earning the No. 3 seed in the East isn’t all that much of an accomplishment this season.
Furthermore, Indiana has plenty of room for improvement, mainly on offense. While the Pacers have been giving up the least amount of points per game in the NBA, they are 28th in the league in average points scored per game.
What should help Indiana is that Danny Granger will make his season debut soon after the All-Star break. He can certainly help the team increase its scoring output, though Pacer fans will have to be patient with him.
As we have seen from Ricky Rubio and Iman Shumpert this season, making a successful return from a knee injury is not a simple task.
When Rubio made his season debut in December after recovering from ACL surgery, he struggled through the first two months. In January, he shot 29 percent from the field, averaging 5.4 points and 5.7 assists per game.
Once February began, Rubio started to look like the rookie version of his self. He has received six more minutes of playing time in February, and his production has skyrocketed. His shooting percentage has improved to 44.4 percent, and he has averaged 13.5 points and 9.3 assists per game.
Iman Shumpert has played in 13 games to this point but has not been able to regain his stellar rookie form. He will probably play better in February and March as he continues to log minutes on the court, but that is something we can only hope.
Even with the developments in medicine that have prolonged athletes’ careers, every injury still seems to have a unique healing process. For that reason, it is impossible to know how useful Danny Granger will be when he returns, or how long it might take for him to become useful.
One factor that should help Granger is that his return should not be too stressful on his body due to his style of play. He mainly relies on his jump shot to score and will likely draw undemanding assignments on defense for the most part.
The Pacers will ask Granger to do more than just plant himself 20-plus feet away from the basket and knock down jumpers, but his ability to do that is the perfect cure for Indiana’s current offensive woes.
Lance Stephenson and Gerald Green are serviceable NBA players, but they have not been able to command respect from the perimeter for Indiana during Granger’s absence this season.
Granger’s shot-making ability will spread out opposing defenses and help David West and Roy Hibbert by giving them more room to operate in the post. When defenses double-team the post, then West and Hibbert can kick the ball out to Granger and he’ll have a free look at the basket. For that reason alone, Indiana’s offense should improve with Granger on the floor.
What could become a problem is Granger’s return will likely take away touches for Paul George, who has emerged as a true force this season.
George leads the Pacers in scoring with 17.6 points per game and is second on the team in assists. So even if George is struggling from the field, he can still help his team when he has the ball in his hands.
It will probably take a few weeks for George and Granger to figure out the best way to share the ball, but they will have plenty of time for some trial and error since the playoffs are still two months away.
When April arrives though, the Pacers will need more than just Danny Granger’s presence to make a run in the playoffs.
The Bulls, Nets and Hawks can still pull the third seed away from the Pacers, and the Knicks would have home-court advantage against the Pacers if those two teams met today with a berth to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line.
If the Pacers could make it to the conference championship round, then they could be rewarded with an opportunity to get revenge against the Heat. Everyone would be expecting Miami to run past Indiana in that series, and chances are they would.
The Heat beat the Pacers in the postseason last year 4-2, despite missing Chris Bosh for the final five games of the series due to injury. Thus, the expectations would likely be for the Heat to not only beat the Pacers again but to thrash them this time, provided that the members of the “Big Three” all remain healthy.
Maybe George’s improvement, Granger’s return and Indiana’s talented frontcourt could put together an incredible effort that would provide the Heat with a real challenge. Maybe…but probably not.
If that were to happen, however, and the Heat were to fall behind in the series as they did last year…then we would likely witness another momentum-changing performance from LeBron James that would compare to his 40-point, 18-rebound, nine-assist stat line in Game 4 against the Pacers in last season’s playoffs.
Another epic game from LeBron would certainly disappoint the Pacers and their fans, and maybe Indiana would falter again after that type of performance.
That is uncertain.
What it is guaranteed is that Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless would rant and rave about who truly is the best basketball player of all time on “First Take” and provide Michael Jordan with another sleepless night.
So if Granger or another Pacer catches fire and leads Indiana past Miami in the playoffs, that player should not be surprised to receive a nice gift basket in the mail from No. 23.
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