INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Danny Granger acknowledges that the Indiana Pacers are in a much better position at this point in the season than they have been in recent years.
To the team’s top scorer, it still doesn’t feel much different.
The Pacers, who have missed the playoffs the past four years, got off to a strong start this season before stumbling to a 5-10 record in December. They head into Saturday’s game at Portland with a 16-22 record, which would put them in the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Pacers expected more after trading for point guard Darren Collison in the offseason and seeing improvement from center Roy Hibbert during the summer and early this season.
“We still, at this point, thought we should be over .500 right now,” a perplexed Granger said recently. “We’re right there.”
In recent years, the Pacers were considered dangerous because of their scoring prowess. They showed potential in a 144-point outburst against Denver on Nov. 9 that included 20 for 21 shooting during a 54-point third quarter.
The Pacers, however, have hurt themselves with long stretches of poor shooting. Indiana ranks fourth in the league in field-goal percentage defense and 14th in scoring defense, but the offense ranks 28th in field-goal percentage and 19th in scoring. In December, the Pacers reached 100 points only three times.
“Our offense has been struggling in the last month or so,” Granger said. “The games we did win was because of defense. We’ll rely on that as a better thing to hang our hats on.”
It’s an interesting mentality for Granger to embrace because he has made his name by scoring in bunches. But after missing out on postseason play, he’s adjusting.
“Offense can come and go, but defense is principles, effort and intensity,” he said. “Those things, you’re supposed to bring every night anyway, so as long as we’re locked in on defense and we know our rotations and the schemes we run, we should be fine.”
Granger is averaging 21.5 points per game, down from 24.1 last season and 25.8 in his All-Star season two years ago. He’s shooting nearly the same percentage as last year, but he’s taking fewer shots because the team has slowed the pace.
The Pacers tend to rise and fall with Granger. He averages 24.2 points and shoots 50 percent in wins, and averages 19.5 points and shoots 38 percent in losses.
Hibbert got off to a strong start, but he has struggled lately and his minutes have been dramatically reduced. He averages 12.4 points and eight rebounds per game, but he has scored in single digits five straight games.
Collison is still adjusting to the Pacers’ system. The second-year player has started to show signs of being the star he was in New Orleans, where he filled in for the injured Chris Paul. He is averaging 17.4 points and 6.4 assists in January.
“I think guys playing together for a longer time, that helps,” Pacers backup point guard T.J. Ford said. “I think everybody is buying into the system. They’re just doing their best to make it work.”
The offense is starting to come around. The Pacers have scored more than 100 points in four of their past five games.
“I think we’re definitely moving in the positive direction because everybody is starting to click,” Granger said. “We’ve always been a pretty good defensive team, but now, we’re starting to get things going on the offensive end.”
Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy are both averaging 11.5 points while splitting shooting guard duties.
Second-year player Tyler Hansbrough has given the Pacers a spark since moving into the starting lineup. He’s averaging 11.6 points and 5.7 rebounds and is shooting 48 percent from the field in seven starts.
Coach Jim O’Brien has added rookie forward Paul George to the rotation, and he has produced as well.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Ford said. “Those guys stayed patient. That’s one thing that’s hard to do in this league is be patient, then produce when your name is called.”
The Pacers, though disappointed, feel that a postseason bid is within their grasp.
“We’ve got teams right behind us, so every time we come out on the court, we know it’s an important game for us to be able to get into the playoffs,” Rush said. “We take it really seriously.”