Largely considered the biggest threat to the Miami Heat once the playoffs begin, the Pacers' success can be directly attributed to the defensive end of the court. Their premier defensive ability has frustrated opponents all year, vaulting them to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Yet, things aren't all rosy in Indiana.
The Pacers have essentially been playing short-handed all year after Danny Granger, arguably their best player, had surgery prior to the start of the season. Outside of Granger, the Pacers remained relatively healthy for the greater portion of the season.
Over the past two weeks, though, health has been the main concern for Pacer fans.
When Granger was finally able to return from injury, he played in only five games before exiting against Chicago after re-aggravating his knee. Granger hasn't seen the court since and things have only gotten worse for the rest of Indiana's roster.
David West has missed the past six games with what is being called a lower back sprain, forcing Tyler Hansbrough into action. Hansbrough has excelled in his expanded roll, notching four double-doubles over the past six games. Long-term, though, Hansbrough is better suited bringing his energy off the bench rather than tallying starter's minutes.
Lance Stephenson and George Hill both missed Indiana's win over Atlanta earlier this week but were able to return last night against Houston. Stephenson contributed with 21 points in 35 minutes, but Hill was clearly bothered by his injury, connecting on only one of 11 shots.
Even so, the injuries to Stephenson and Hill are not as worrisome as Granger and West's injuries. Both Stephenson and Hill should be able to bounce back rather quickly from their minor injuries, given the fact they are 22 and 26, respectively. But, the age of the latter two is the most concerning factor for the Pacers.
West is 32 going on 33 and Granger is no spring chicken, with his 30th birthday less than a month away. Clearly Granger's recovery has not been as speedy as it was once hoped it would be. He was originally slated to miss only three months, but it's becoming a possibility that even with Granger back he won't be the player he was before the injury.
The back injury David West is suffering from should not be a huge concern now, but if two weeks down the road West still hasn't played, it may be time to hit the panic button. West's player page states there is a possibility he will return Thursday against Dallas, although that is no guarantee.
Ultimately, the biggest issue for the Pacers will be getting everybody healthy so the team can establish some continuity.
If and when Danny Granger comes back, Frank Vogel will have some crucial decisions to make. Not often will a superstar voluntarily come off the bench. We did see it with Amar'e Stoudemire in New York earlier this year, but we also saw Pau Gasol whine about it in Los Angeles.
In Granger's brief return this year he did come off the bench, but that was more of getting him acclimated with the speed of the game than a full-time gig.
The fluidity of the offense will be the key. Roy Hibbert has played remarkably better in the second half of the season, averaging 14 points on 48 percent shooting since the All-Star break. With a volume scorer such as Granger back in the picture, Hibbert will probably lose touches on the inside and could revert back to his pre-All-Star break form.
While Paul George hasn't broken out entirely in Granger's absence, he has been the focal point of the Pacers offense all season.
Playing alongside Granger may free him up on some possessions, but there is no way George will be able to get off the 15 shots per game he is averaging thus far this season. George has been streaky at points during the season, and the fact that he is averaging five more points per game than last year can be traced to the five more shots he has taken per game.
Unfortunately, regression with Granger back in the picture is more than likely.
Over the next month, the Pacers need to get everyone healthy so that the first time everyone is playing together is not in the playoffs. Granger played with many of the same players last year, but Darren Collison is no longer running the show and Lance Stephenson's role has increased. How Granger meshes with the team will be a storyline to follow when he gets back.
The injury to David West may also loom large as the playoffs draw nearer. The last thing the Pacers want is to rush West back into game action, causing his injury to become an ongoing issue. Although Pacer fans may want to see West back as soon as possible, the more important thing is seeing him on the court during the playoffs.
West has been the Pacers' most consistent low-post option this season, meaning Indiana should play it safe with his back injury.
Every team is dealing with some kind of injury trouble at this point in the season, but not many are adding a key ingredient to the mix this late. That's why it's crucial for Danny Granger to do everything he can do to get on the court as soon as possible.
Even if Granger doesn't come back, the Pacers still have a chance to win the Eastern Conference. I've detailed why they have a good chance to beat the Heat, and truthfully it is a realistic possibility. Indiana has proven they can beat Miami this year, along with every other contender in the East.
If they are able to get their injured players back and establish continuity on both ends of the court, the Pacers may very well be the most dangerous team in the East.
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