March 10, 2009
Granger remains sidelined as red-hot Jazz visit
By Mike Wells
The Indiana Pacers returned from their three-city West Coast trip feeling good after gaining ground in the playoff race. They're also a game closer to having their leading scorer return.
But there's a catch: They'll be without Danny Granger tonight and have to beat the hottest team in the NBA if they expect to gain or maintain their ground in the Eastern Conference.
The Utah Jazz have won 11 consecutive games and are 14-1 since Feb. 1.
"When you play against them, you have to bring your hard hat," Pacers guard Jarrett Jack said.
Center Mehmet Okur scored a career-high 43 points in the Jazz's victory against the Pacers in January. Utah and San Antonio are the only teams among the NBA's top seven that the Pacers haven't beaten.
"You have to make sure you take pride in protecting the paint," coach Jim O'Brien said.
"They run the same offense and just execute the heck out of it. It's very unique to the NBA."
The Pacers are 4-2 in their past six games and 6-3 since All-Star Granger suffered a partially torn tendon in his right foot.
Scoreboard watching has become a habit for the Pacers, who have just 17 games remaining to climb over and move ahead of four tightly bunched teams for the final playoff spot. They have four games left against teams they're chasing -- Chicago (twice), Charlotte and Milwaukee.
"It's always good when you're in a situation where every game is meaningful," O'Brien said.
"As a result, your players don't need the coaching staff to keep them focused. They are focused. They understand the meaning of every basketball game."
Granger said his goal is to return Friday at Atlanta.
Granger has yet to practice with his teammates, but he did individual drills -- shooting, ballhandling, cutting -- with assistant coach Frank Vogel after practice Monday.
Lateral movement still puts stress on his foot.
"I can't do everything yet," Granger said.
"I'm getting most of it back. Some things I'm still limited with. I have to make sure when I come back I'm definitely ready and I'm not half speed. (The team has) been playing very well."
The Pacers have had success without Granger by spreading the scoring.
They have had a different scoring leader in four of the nine games he has missed. Jack is averaging 21.9 points a game in that span.
"It really has nothing do with who is on the court or who is not on the court," O'Brien said. "It has to do with the fact when we started the year, half the team was brand new and it's a matter of guys getting comfortable with the schemes, the offense. And when Danny went down, our guys were just starting to get comfortable with what we want to accomplish at both ends of the court, and when he comes back, I don't think there will be any difficulty of him getting back into the flow of things."