Seven months ago we were watching the Indiana Pacers battle the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers struggled on the offensive end and didn’t have enough firepower to contend with the eventual champions. Everyone knew the Pacers were missing one valuable piece that would have made the biggest difference in the series: Danny Granger.
Paul George stepped into the franchise player role last season with Granger out, something no one saw coming. George has stepped into a superstar role this year, while Granger has become the team’s sixth man. And while it’s only been a three-game sample, the return of Granger has proven everyone right: he was the missing piece of the championship puzzle.
On the offensive end, Granger has been a bit rusty, which was to be expected, but he doesn’t appear to have lost anything on the defensive end. He has been a considerable upgrade over Orlando Johnson and Rasual Butler, even if he is only 50-to-75 percent healthy. Granger’s presence on the court, along with seventh man Luis Scola, has created the spacing they were missing last year. C.J. Watson, Lance Stephenson and Ian Mahinmi, the rest of the second unit, have benefited greatly from Granger’s return. Since his return, the bench has averaged 33 points per game, up from their 24 points per game when Granger was still on the bench in his suit and that’s not including what Stephenson does while on the court with him.
Larry Bird’s No. 1 goal in the offseason was to revamp the Pacers’ bench. The bench was dismal last season, which cause head coach Frank Vogel to play his starters more minutes than he probably wanted to, especially George. Those minutes started to catch up with the starters in the playoffs and showed against the Heat. The addition of Scola provided a stop-gap until Granger returned, but he’s proven to be more than that. This year’s second unit has had its down games, however, their ability to not give up leads and keep pace with their opponent has proven to be worth every move Bird has made.
The Pacers have also had their best stretch of victories since Granger returned. While it’s not their longest win streak of the season, it’s their longest streak of defeating opponents by 10-plus points. It could be a coincidence that Granger’s return coincided with the Pacers’ current win streak margin, but defenses know they can’t let Granger remain open — the Boston Celtics found that out when Granger scored 12 points on wide-open threes — like they could Johnson or Butler.
Coming into this season, everyone knew the Pacers needed more firepower from their bench if they wanted to get past the Heat. Granger is already showing he will return to his normal self when he becomes 100 percent healthy and he is proving that he was the missing piece of the Pacers’ championship puzzle.