Staring down the barrel of a third consecutive loss, the Indiana Pacers played angry on Friday night and crushed the Houston Rockets -- a team that beat them handidly twice in the preseason -- by 33, coincidentally, the jersey number of Danny Granger, who returned to regular season action for the first time in what has felt like 10 years.
OK, maybe not 10 years, but 2 is pretty close. Granger played 5 games last season before undergoing knee surgery, and was due to return until a calf injury sidelined him just before this season began. As expected, Granger was rusty, finishing with 5 points and 5 turnovers on 1-7 shooting in 22 minutes. He did contribute though, with 2 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a big block from the weak side on Dwight Howard.
The Pacers didn't exactly need him tonight though as they ran with this one, 114-81, to snap a two-game losing streak and maintain their one-game lead ahead of the Miami Heat for the best record in the East.
It was an all-round effort and the Pacers made it look easy. Paul George led the way with 24 points, Lance Stephenson had 13, David West and George Hill had 12 apiece, Luis Scola had 13 and Ian Mahinmi had 10. The Rockets were without Jeremy Lin, but the Pacers were largely successful in limiting both Dwight Howard (19 and 12) and James Harden (12 points on 3-14 shooting, 5 turnovers).
Even with Granger looking nowhere near where the Pacers want him to be eventually, it was just good to have him out there and get some minutes under his belt. Granger essentially engulfed the minutes usually awarded to wings such as Orlando Johnson, Solomon Hill and Rasual Butler, and that is a great thing even if he's at just 50% capacity.
The most important thing right now is for Granger to not have any setbacks and to continue to build his fitness and confidence. He's been a notoriously slow starter, and given the amount of time he has missed I won't expect him to hit any kind of a stride until the All-Star break. But once he does, look out!
At 21-5, the Pacers have another opportunity to go on a winning streak with a string of favorable matchups coming up, starting with the Boston Celtics on Monday, followed by a home-and-away with the Brooklyn Nets, who found out they lost leading scorer Brook Lopez for the rest of the season with a broken foot. The Pacers finish off the year with a home game against Cleveland, then begin 2014 with Toronto, New Orleans, Cleveland, Toronto, Atlanta, Washington, Sacramento and New York.
The team had been showing signs of slippage after their hot start, but the losses to Detroit and Miami appear to have jolted them back onto the right track. On paper at least, all of the next 12 games are "winnable", and the Pacers will likely have to go something ridiculous like 11-1 or 10-2 to maintain their lead on the Heat.