DALLAS — As late as Wednesday, after the Indiana Pacers beat the Rockets in Houston and then huddled around the nearest TV to catch the end of Bulls-Heat, they believed Danny Granger was coming back.
Word was as soon as Thursday night at Dallas.
All that changed in a matter of about 15 hours when coach Frank Vogel got the definitive news Thursday afternoon: Granger is done for 2012-13. After flare-ups followed a lone failed comeback bid in late February and early March led to another round of doctor consultations, the determination was for the former All-Star to undergo surgery on his troublesome left knee.
Granger’s next stop is the OR. But the Pacers’ is the postseason. As disappointing as the news is for Granger and his teammates, Indiana has reached this point — a dogfight with the New York Knicks for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference — without the him for all but five mostly ineffective games all season.
“It was surprising, I’ve been thinking he was coming back all along, but we can’t do anything about it now,” guard George Hill said. “I hope that he has a safe recovery and a quick recovery, but we have to move on as a team and continue doing what we’ve been doing all year long without him and that’s finding our identity and playing good, solid team basketball.”
As much as the addition of a 6-foot-9 shooter might have boosted the Pacers for the stretch run and beyond, integrating Granger at this late date could have proven more problematic than beneficial. In the five games he did play (more like three games because he logged just 10 and eight minutes in his final two appearances), Granger averaged 5.4 points and 1.8 rebounds. He played 19 minutes in each of his first three games.
“Now that question whether he’s going to get back or not is out of our minds,” David West said. “And we just have to go ahead with the guys we have.”
The Pacers have managed to fill Granger’s position nicely with budding All-Star Paul George, journeymen Gerald Green and Sam Young, and rookie Orlando Johnson. Lance Stephenson has emerged as a contributor as the starting shooting guard. Roles have long been established as has the Pacers’ hard-nosed identity as the league’s toughest defense.
With just nine games left after Thursday’s matchup with the Mavericks, the Pacers are focused on capturing the No. 2 seed. They’re hopeful of grinding their way to the East finals against the Heat, last season’s playoff ouster who Indiana actually rooted for to extend their streak to 28 at Chicago.
Indiana won the regular-season series with Miami, 2-1, taking two home games by an average margin of 11.5 points and holding the Heat to 77 and 89 points. With or without Granger, they believe they possess the team defense, interior size and scoring to make the Heat sweat.
“Succeeding in this league is about confidence, and it’s not like we just lost Danny and we have to go out and establish a belief in ourselves,” Vogel said. “We have a great deal of belief in ourselves, in who we’ve become this year without Danny. Obviously, we had hopes to bring him back, but we have a great deal of confidence.”
Vogel said he spoke to Granger Thursday prior to him leaving the team to return to Indianapolis and meet with doctors.
“He’s at peace with [the decision for surgery]. He knows that it’s the best decision,” Vogel said. “He’s disappointed, but you’ve got to make the best decision and we feel like we did.”
The best news to come Thursday for the Pacers was the return of West, Indiana’s second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder (just a tick below George in both categories) from a six-game absence with a balky back.
West has made tremendous strides this season, returning to the form prior to his ACL injury that made him a two-time All-Star with the New Orleans Hornets. He’s averaging 17.3 ppg, up from 12.8 last season, on nearly 50 percent shooting, and 7.7 rpg, up from 6.6 last season.
“I don’t think you could give him enough credit for what he’s done with our team and our culture,” Vogel said of the 10-year veteran West. “He’s the lion in the locker room, he’s the heart and soul and he gives us the swagger of knowing we’re playing with one of the best in the game at the power forward position.”
What had been Granger’s team is now in West’s hands. A physical, defensive force and offensive go-to-guy in the clutch, West becomes a free agent this summer, while Granger returns for the final year of his deal.
But on Thursday, with Granger’s official departure and West’s return, all the uncertainty has ceased except for this: Just how far can these Pacers can go?