If anyone has any lingering doubts about the Pacers’ credibility as true championship contenders, that their league-best record is somehow inflated by a weak schedule, they simply will not be convinced unless the banner is hoisted and the rings distributed.
They completed a six-game gauntlet with a 4-2 record, including an inspired 90-84 victory over the Heat Tuesday night in the first game back from a road trip that included stops in most of the Western Conference’s most difficult venues and victories over the Spurs, Clippers and Jazz.
And they did it without playing anything close to their best game, committing 21 turnovers and missing eight free throws to give the visitors fuel.
So at 19-3, with a three-game lead over Miami in the East, the case certainly can be made the Pacers are better than the Heat at the moment.
Which is nice, but ultimately meaningless unless they also are better than the Heat in June.
And the key to that was wearing a sport coat Tuesday night, not a uniform.
Danny Granger expects to launch another comeback attempt Friday when the Pacers play the Bobcats, and this one needs to stick.
Every move the Pacers made in the offseason, individually and collectively, was aimed directly at the Heat. The focus was to build a better bench, to develop a more experienced, tougher, savvier and ultimately productive support structure for a starting lineup that was among the best in the league.
For that to happen, the Pacers will need Granger.
Luis Scola and C.J. Watson represent major upgrades – both played deep into the fourth quarter Tuesday night as the Pacers fought off Miami’s attempts to rally. Beyond them, there has been little in the way of productivity, or relief.
Add Granger to the mix and you have something else entirely.
“That’s going to be scary,” said Paul George. “You talk about a legit starting five to go along with a legit second unit. That second unit could very well be our starting five. If he comes back at the level everybody knows Danny’s going to play at, this team should really skyrocket offensively.”
Of course, it isn’t going to happen quickly or painlessly. Assuming Granger does play Friday – something Frank Vogel wasn’t ready to acknowledge – it will be just the first step in what promises to be a long process of rebuilding conditioning, strength, timing, rhythm and confidence.“I’m pain-free,” Granger said Tuesday after the team’s shootaround. “It’s just a matter of conditioning. With the NBA when you play a game there’s a lot of pounding, a lot of pushing so you have to condition your body, your legs, everything for that, along with your wind. …
“I’ll have a minutes limit, strictly for the fact I have to play my way into shape. We don’t have enough practice for me to practice myself into shape. It’s literally going to be games where I’m playing.”
Whenever a player of such import returns from a lengthy absence, a disruption is only natural because the team’s patterns will change. There will be a hiccup or two along the way as Pacers double as contenders and care-givers.
The way Vogel has structured the second-unit rotation to this point should minimize that impact. Orlando Johnson and Solomon Hill have in effect been place-holders for Granger. Their combined 20-plus minutes per game will soon belong to him and the rest of the second unit should not be affected.
“The only thing I can do in my role is to make sure he’s ready, to make sure his conditioning’s up to speed and his offensive and defensive timing is up to speed,” Vogel said. “When that takes place, it shouldn’t disrupt our timing, hopefully.”
The last thing Granger wants to do is mess with a good thing.
But the next thing he must do is jump in with both feet and start stroking.
Whether he can come all the way back and eventually rejoin the starting lineup, thus pushing Lance Stephenson to the bench, or whether he simply becomes the gunner the second unit so desperately needs remains to be seen. Either way, Granger would have a profound impact on an already elite team.
They’ve proven they can win without him.
But win it all? For that, they’ll need everything, and everyone, they can muster.