Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers president, wasn't happy with his team's performance the other night in Minneapolis -- "Can you believe all the 3-pointers at the end?" he grumbled on his way out of Target Center -- and neither were the Pacers' coaches or players.
In fact, the visiting locker room Friday might have set some sort of record for downcast after what, after all, was just another regular-season loss in early January.
You'd have thought it was the wrong end of a Game 7: Almost all the players were seated at their dressing stalls, grim dead-ahead looks on their faces, unless they were staring blankly at the floor or covering up in frustration with a hand or two to the forehead. Even inactive guys like Jeff Foster and Travis Diener were sitting stone-faced in their street clothes at least 15 minutes after the final horn of their 116-109 loss to the Timberwolves.
"Do they take every loss this hard?" I asked a Pacers insider. "Oh yeah," he said. "When they win, it's like they've won a playoff game. When they lose, it's like this."
Rough way to go through a schedule of 82.
Even the good news of the night, in big-picture terms, didn't lighten the mood. Forward Danny Granger, the Pacers' best player, leading scorer and lone All-Star a year ago, had returned unexpectedly from a layoff of 16 games caused by a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
The fifth-year pro from the University of New Mexico had suffered the injury Dec. 5 and figured to be out for another two weeks, until two practices produced little soreness. Coach Jim O'Brien stuck him in the starting lineup and got 19 points, six rebounds and four fouls in more than 31 minutes. Power forward Troy Murphy was back, too, returning from a four-game absence (sprained left ankle) to play 30 minutes.
Based on the outcome, though, and some late unraveling, there wasn't much to celebrate. The Pacers' lack of aggressiveness was glaring, red-flagged by their rebounding and free-throw deficits; Minnesota beat them 56-36 on the boards and shot 45 free throws to Indiana's 17. Murphy caught the Wolves unaware, hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 19 points in the first half but had two points the rest of the night.
Granger, who had been sidelined longer, looked even more tentative, preferring to launch from the arc rather than work his way in. He hit three of 10 from out there, including one that got the Pacers within 98-97 with 7:07 left. Yet instead of dialing up the pressure on Minnesota's defense, they let up as Granger missed his next four shots, two of them early in the clock. Indiana slipped behind by six, then nine.
"We didn't think they would shoot the way they did, coming off [the injuries]," Minnesota's Ryan Gomes said. "Granger came in shooting threes like he didn't miss any games, and Murphy the same way. Those guys are capable of lighting it up -- that's the way [the Pacers] play. They take open shots, quick shots in transition. Toward the end of the game, though, I think their legs got a little heavy and they weren't able to make those shots."
Down the hall, at his corner locker, Granger sat looking forlorn, ice bags on his knees, both feet submerged in an icy bath. "It's not all there yet," he said. "My legs weren't all there, but I guess that's expected. It will take at least a few games for me to get my old rhythm back and get back in the flow of things. A few of them, I was jumping too much or pushing too hard."
Not attacking the basket more, playing gingerly in his first games back, is understandable (Granger scored 25 points in Saturday's loss at Oklahoma City, launching 10 more 3-pointers on a 6-of-21 night). Playing that way, even when healthy, is not. Granger has taken some heat from Pacers fans and media for a growing 3-point fascination, and the numbers support it.
As a rookie in 2005-06, Granger attempted 93 from behind the arc in 1,765 minutes, a rate of one every 18.9 minutes. His second season, it was one every 9.7 minutes. That rate has accelerated in the seasons since to 6.8, 5.4 and now, on 166 hoists in 690 minutes, one 3-pointer for every 4.2 minutes he's on the floor. It doesn't help that his accuracy is down from a career-best 40.4 percent last season to 35.5 now.
New York's Danilo Gallinari averages one 3-pointer every 4.6 minutes. Orlando's Rashard Lewis is one every 5.2. No wonder some folks hoped Granger was paying attention to Kevin Durant on Saturday, when the Thunder star scored 40 points while making and taking just two 3-pointers. Granger ranks 18th in the NBA in attempts from the arc and 50th in shots from the foul line.
O'Brien just seems eager for Granger to return to last season's form, when he became the first player in NBA history to boost his scoring average by at least five points for three consecutive seasons (from 7.5 ppg to 13.9, 19.6 and 25.8). He also was the first Indiana player to top 25 per game since Billy Knight in 1976-77.
"It's very important to have a guy of Danny's talent on the court for a number of reasons," O'Brien said. "He's a go-to-guy. He's a very good isolation guy when things break down, he spaces the court. Our whole package of plays are in play when he's able to play. We have to get him going as quickly as possible."
After all, Indiana -- despite being tied for the conference's second-worst record (11-25) -- is just five games out of the eighth playoff spot in the forgiving East. The Pacers were 6-12 with Granger healthy, 5-11 while he was out and 0-2 after 48 hours of comeback.
"It's on my shoulders, but it's on a lot of other guys' shoulders too," he said. "We really have to come together as a unit and make this thing work. We are struggling right now, but we're not that far out of the playoffs. I saw [while sidelined] that we need a dominant scorer. I'll definitely bring that. It's on me to watch the shots I take, watch the shots not to take. Things like that, getting teammates involved. We have to have that on our team."
So often below the radar anyway in Indianapolis, the Pacers will stay there until they get things right -- Granger included. "The only thing that brings us into the spotlight is winning," he said. "We're not Chicago, we're not New York. Those teams, you can lose and everyone still knows who you are. It's different in Indiana, so we have to compensate by winning."