At 25-16, they lead the Central Division and stand third in the Eastern Conference. They are, in fact, just 2½ games behind the first-place Heat.
And yet security escapes them. Just 5½ games separate the top seven teams in the East. Just 3½ games separate the top five. The margin for error is razor-thin, particularly for a team heading out on a tough four-game road trip against teams in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
As Paul George put it so succinctly:
“The biggest hurdle is being a team that can get wins on the road. That’s probably our Achilles heel right now and that’s what we’ve really got to get better at because when it comes down to playoff time, if we don’t have the higher seed, we’re pretty much screwed. We’ve got to be able to learn how to win on the road.”
With so much to gain – and to lose – in these final 41 games, the Pacers are one of three contenders with a wild-card up their sleeve.
For Indiana, it is Danny Granger.
For Chicago, it is Derrick Rose.
For Philadelphia, it is Andrew Bynum.
How and when those cards are played could well tip the balance in the East.
GRANGER COMING SOON?
After weeks of no news on Granger’s status, finally there was something of a breakthrough Friday when he participated in his first shootaround of the season, a positive sign he is making significant ground in his recovery from knee tendinosis.
The original 90-day prognosis would indicate a return late this month or in early February. In other words, the window soon will be open.
“It’s exciting to get close,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “I think we’re doing some really good things as a basketball team without him and I think he’s only going to enhance that. We finished the season last year playing as good as anybody in the NBA. We feel when he’s back in the lineup we’ll be right there and maybe even better with the growth of Lance Stephenson and Paul George.”
For the time being, Granger will be participating only in non-contact drills. Until he is cleared for full practice, we really won’t have any kind of real gauge on how his knee has responded to the two injections of Platelet Rich Plasma and therefore what can be expected.
The good news is there won’t be pressure on him to carry the offense. Even if he is limited to spot-up shooting for a few weeks, that will be a big help.
Vogel isn’t sure if Granger would move right back into the starting lineup, but my guess is he will, in order to expedite the development of unit chemistry not only with the starters but the bench, which will surely benefit from Stephenson’s aggressive presence.
“We’ll have to see what he’s able to do right away,” Vogel said. “I don’t imagine he’s going to be able to come right back and play 38 minutes a game. If there’s a time frame where he’s limited minutes-wise, then we’ll consider bringing him off the bench for the short term. If we do so, it will only be for the short-term. We look forward to having him back in the starting lineup.”
ROSE’S RETURN WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING
As much curiosity as there has been locally in Granger’s status, multiply that by MVP and you have the situation in Chicago. Like Granger, Rose is participating in non-contact drills in his comeback from reconstructive knee surgery and by all accounts has looked very good.
Assuming he comes back after the All-Star break (if not before), Rose could eventually change the balance of power in the East. The Bulls have done a nice job hanging around in his absence; regaining the services of one of the league’s best point guards could send them skyrocketing past the Pacers – and the Heat, for that matter.
He certainly won’t be his old self right away, but Rose will instantly be a substantial upgrade over Kirk Hinrich.
DON’T DISCOUNT BYNUM’S IMPACT
Though the Sixers are currently on the outside looking in, trailing the Celtics by three games, they most certainly would be able to make a strong push for one of the final two seeds should be return around the All-Star break.
This was a team rebuilt around the young All-Star center; in his absence the Sixers have struggled to survive as a doughnut team. Getting Bynum back allows their pieces to fall back into place – and don’t forget this was a team expected to be a top-four contender in the East before he was felled by bone bruises in both knees.
So what, you say? Who cares about the bottom of the conference?
Consider: if the Sixers climb into the seventh or eighth seed, they would become a formidable playoff matchup fully capable of pulling a first-round upset.