MILWAUKEE – Once the shock subsided, the speculation began: If suddenly former Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger works out a buyout from the Philadelphia team to which he was dealt at the NBA trade deadline Thursday, he conceivably could sign with the Miami Heat. Or the San Antonio Spurs. Or the Dallas Mavericks or some other playoff team.
If that happened -– particularly if he landed in Miami –- the Pacers in their championship quest this spring could find themselves staring right at Granger, their longtime leading scorer and face of the franchise with a new, sizable chip on his shoulder. Imagine Granger hitting a game- or series-clinching shot that spoils Indiana’s marvelous season…
Gulp. The possibility is so ironic, so emotional, it’s almost unthinkable. It would be like Ray Allen in Game 6 – only against the Celtics.
Know, though, that the Pacers’ locker room is a gulp-free zone.
“We’re competing for a championship,” Pacers All-Star wing Paul George said. “Not a friendship.”
George considers Granger exactly that, a friend and former mentor. He ascended to Granger’s status and beyond while the veteran was waylaid by injuries for more than a year, and he hated to see him go in the deal for the 76ers’ Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. But friendships and relationships criss-cross this league in endless connections, via countless paths.
The chip that matters most to George, the one that could define his and the Pacers’ season, is the big one that comes only in June. The line to that is straight and true.
Said George: “It’s bigger than… Y’know, everything on the floor – I’ve got friends in the league and people I looked up to in the league – but when it comes to a ballgame, that’s where [our business] is.
“I think Larry [Bird, Pacers president] made the best move for this team. We all wish Danny could be here. But Larry knows basketball and if that’s the move Larry wanted to make, we’re all behind him. … We understand we’re ‘all in.’ ”
People talk about chemistry and how tight the Pacers have been, circling their wagons first in an overlooked-and-underloved way that works so well for teams in flyover markets, then in the flatly stated goal of the postseason’s No. 1 seed for homecourt advantage. They’ve grown – up and together – the old-fashioned way, step-by-playoff-round-step the past three years.
They’d done it in spite of Granger’s setbacks, allowing him enough time to return and search for value he could bring off the bench. Only now he’s gone, Bird deciding that Turner’s livelier game offers more. Who’d know better than Bird that chasing championships isn’t for softies?
“Danny was one of the main reasons I came here,” power forward David West said. “So the idea that he’s not going to be around what we’re trying to do is a little tough to deal with. But it’s a part of the business. And if he happens to go to a team whether it’s in the West or the East, if he doesn’t stay in Philly and we’ve got to compete against Danny, then we just have to do it.”
Welcome to Pacers 2.0, a group that added pieces Thursday and, as it did, steeled its resolve. They might seem to have a lot of variables in play, too many given their impressive first half this season: a 9-6 record since Jan. 20, the Andrew Bynum experiment that’s just begun, the loss of Granger and the indoctrination of Turner and Allen.
But it gives them chores, a to-do list to take their minds off Miami in a tightened race for the East’s best record. With the promise of something special.
“Y’know, this is a starter-owned team, so there’s not variables in that regard. It’s just the parts that are around them,” coach Frank Vogel said. “I think there’s room to improve.”
Bynum practiced Friday briefly, after spending his All-Star break in Indianapolis working on his game and conditioning. There’s no penciled-in date for his game debut, but Vogel said the slack in his team’s schedule this week will mean more practice for the 7-foot center, adrift when he signed Feb. 1 after a spotty half season in Cleveland and a lost year with Philadelphia.
Evan and Allen didn’t join Indiana in time to face and beat the Bucks Saturday but are expected to play Tuesday against the Lakers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It will be on them, especially Turner, to shake off the cobwebs of Philadelphia’s 15-42 for a team with a mirror record and ambitions.
“He’s going to have to be able to adjust early and find his way,” said George, who went eight picks after No. 2 Turner in the 2010 Draft. “I think we’re going to do a great job of pulling him in and helping him along the process.
“He’s a good friend of mine, so I’ll be one of the first people to help him through this process. … In big games, he’s one of those guys who can impact it in so many ways. He guards on the other end, he has the ability to make shots and can get into the paint at will.”
Bird surely did his homework on Turner, a talent with spotty production in his first three-plus seasons who has been putting up numbers for a bad team. George knows him well. And West did a little reconnaissance, having played at Xavier for the same coach – Thad Matta – Turner had at Ohio State.
“We’ve got a little background on him,” West said. “I definitely talked to coach.”
Turner got a taste of the playoffs in his first two seasons. But he’s never had an opportunity like this one.
“That’s what I’m banking on,” West said. “Those guys have been in tough situations and they’re coming to a winning and strong basketball culture. Hopefully it helps them thrive and gives them some pride. I know Turner’s a competitor. He’s given us trouble when we’ve played against him in the past.
“Hopefully he knows the plan here is to play into June.”