by Marty Burns
Earlier this season, Pacers forward Danny Granger dived headfirst for a loose ball in a game against the Celtics. Never mind that Indiana was blowing out Boston by 16 points in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-9 Granger still hurtled his body at the ball as if it were the final seconds of a one-point contest. Paul Pierce fell on top of him, and Granger's mouth went straight into the Conseco Fieldhouse floor.
"It was pretty bloody," said Granger, who lost two teeth but stayed in the game and wound up scoring a team-high 20 points to spearhead a 95-79 victory.
"I was in the [dentist's] chair for two-and-a-half hours later that night ... then I had to go back two days later for another two hours. ... It was hard to eat for about a week."
The symbolism could not have been more perfect. Just a day before, Granger had signed a five-year, $60 million contract extension. Now here he was, showing all those disaffected Pacers fans that the new franchise cornerstone intended to earn every penny -- even if it means spending the rest of his evening in a dentist's chair.
Talk about a new face of the franchise.
Ready or not, that's the position in which Granger finds himself now. The fourth-year forward from New Mexico, who has not yet made an All-Star team, has been tabbed to follow the likes of Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal as Mr. Pacer in basketball-mad Hoosier country.
"I definitely embrace it," Granger said as he sat at his locker before a recent game. "With the contract extension, I'm going to be here a while, so I think that's a good thing. My role has changed. I kind of have to take it on my shoulders to do my part to help this team get back to where it was, and I think it starts with us getting to the playoffs."
Whether the retooled Pacers can get to the postseason this year remains to be seen, but they are on the right path with Granger.
The athletic forward has established himself as a rising star, improving every season since being drafted in the first round (No. 17 overall) in 2005. Hailed as an NBA-ready defender after four years of college, he has evolved into a big-time scorer as well. Granger averaged 19.6 points while shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range last season.
With fellow top scorer Mike Dunleavy yet to play a game because of a knee injury, Granger has picked up his play even more this season. Through Tuesday, he was tied for sixth in the NBA in scoring (24.3) while adding 5.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Granger had 34 points (on 13-of-18 shooting) Tuesday night as the Pacers defeated the Hawks 113-96 to move to 5-5.
"Danny's been great," Pacers point guard T.J. Ford said. "He's improved every year he's been in the NBA. He's earned [that franchise tag]."
Though Granger's playing skills are impressive, he is not yet the kind of complete All-Star type who normally gets tabbed as the face of a franchise. He still needs to work on his ball-handling and passing. For the most part, Granger looks to be more like a solid No. 2 guy on a championship contender, rather than a superstar.
For this Pacers club, however, Granger might be the perfect man for the job. Indiana ranked last in the NBA in attendance in 2007-08 as fans finally decided they had seen enough after recent seasons marred by the brawl in Detroit and a subsequent series of off-court incidents involving players. Pacers president Larry Bird admitted after last season that one of his main goals going forward would be to clean up the image of the team.
Respectful and well-mannered, Granger has never had a whiff of trouble since arriving in Indiana. The New Orleans native, who majored in civil engineering at New Mexico, recently donated $500,000 to his alma mater to help renovate its basketball arena. Pacers insiders praise him for his work ethic and practice habits.
"We don't have a 'face of the franchise.' We just have the Pacers," coach Jim O'Brien said. "But Danny Granger is a very, very good player. He's got the highest plus/minus ratio on our team. He's a real solid leader. He's one of our two captains, along with Mike Dunleavy. He is a scorer, but he's also a solid defensive player. He's well-rounded."
Granger provided a glimpse of that all-around game Tuesday night against the Hawks. He hit jumpers, attacked the basket and posted up Marvin Williams inside to draw a foul and a trip to the line. He also snuffed a Williams layup attempt on defense, then turned it into points on the break by redirecting a touch pass to teammate Rasho Nesterovic for a layup.
Granger came up big when it counted, too, scoring seven points during a 9-2 Pacers run that iced the game after Atlanta had trimmed the lead to seven in the fourth quarter. O'Brien also credited him with seven deflections on the defensive end. It's that kind of leadership that Granger hopes will help the Pacers win games and get fans back at Conseco.
"Its definitely a new chapter around here," he said.
"Changes have been made from the head office to the players. It's a new era now, and we have to take responsibility."
Even if it means giving up your teeth in pursuit of a loose ball.