By CLIFF BRUNT
It shouldn’t end this way.
The Indiana Pacers have been relatively injury free all season long, and now, they risk the season ending with their two best players sidelined or at less than full strength.
Danny Granger went down with a twisted ankle in Game 5 and David West went down with a sprained knee. If the Pacers are without either in Game 6, they’re toast. If both don’t feel a whole lot better before tip-off, they’re still toast.
The Pacers had been one of the few teams to avoid major injuries this season. Darren Collison and George Hill missed some time this season, but the team was fine in each case because of depth.
Most of Indiana’s pieces are interchangeable, but the two that aren’t are the ones limping. They are the only two players the Pacers absolutely must have on the court to win. Both have been All-Stars; both are leaders in their own ways.
Here’s how the injuries impact Game 6 Thursday at Bankers Life:
Granger – He is the primary defender against LeBron James, and he was struggling even when healthy. If Granger can’t go or is limited, either Paul George would play small forward or Dahntay Jones would play a lot more. George isn’t strong enough to defend James. Plus, George would have to switch off of Wade. Without Granger, Indiana isn’t as long, meaning the Pacers wouldn’t be able to affect passing lanes as much, something that would severely cripple their fast break. Plus, everybody has to deal with James on the boards, and the more 6-foot-9 athletic people you have to deal with him, the better.
On the other end, Granger had been finding his rhythm offensively after getting shut down the first two games. Now, the Pacers would have one less player who could create his own shot. Jones is a nice shooter, but he needs to be set up. George can shoot, but in this series, his shot selection has been shaky at times. Depending more on George at this point is risky. Leandro Barbosa is a nice offensive player, and his minutes would increase. But he can’t guard Wade.
Without Granger, you also lose a player who consistently has stood up for himself in the series. Whether you like Granger’s outbursts and technicals or not, at least he has made it clear he’s taking nothing off the Heat.
West – He is the centerpiece of the team’s no-nonsense approach. Hibbert is more talented at this point in his career, but West is the force and the enforcer.
West also is much more skilled and consistent than Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough had two costly travels in Game 4 that hurt Indiana’s comeback hopes. It is an example of the fact that, while Hansbrough is a nice player off the bench and his intensity is valuable, depending on him in a make-or-break game could be problematic. Plus, not having West at full strength would put Indiana one injury away from Lou Amundson getting most of the minutes at power forward. Amundson is a great energy player off the bench, but his lack of offensive polish would allow the Heat to cheat off of him and bother Hibbert even more than before. Miami wouldn’t even pretend to guard Amundson. West is good enough to make Miami pay for paying too much attention to Hibbert; Hansbrough and Amundson are not.
So the Pacers need their two “stars” on an allegedly starless team to shine, or a team that looks nothing like the one that has gotten Bankers Life rocking again will be a sacrificial lamb in Game 6.
And if West and Granger are able to play and the Pacers somehow win Game 6, the MVP award should be snatched away from LeBron and handed to the Pacers training staff. Boy, are those guys about to earn their money.