INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—His knee injury—and subsequent comeback, then shutdown—didn’t come with all the fanfare of Bulls counterpart Derrick Rose, but for Pacers veteran forward Danny Granger, the preseason opener Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is a significant moment, too.
Granger said after the Pacers’ morning shootaround. “I feel good. I’m excited, probably more excited than I have been for a preseason game in about 10 years, but I’m just happy to be playing and not playing on one leg, so I’m happy about that.”
Granger will come off the bench for Indiana—Pacers head coach Frank Vogel will start shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who emerged as a starter last season—but although he isn’t the primary focus of the matchup, his comeback is considered one of the reasons, along with a revamped bench, that Indiana, as well as Chicago, is considered one of the prime contenders to dethrone the two-time defending champion Heat, whom the Pacers took to seven games in the conference finals last spring.
“They’re loaded. They had a great year last year. They’ve added some quality depth. You look at a guy like [Luis] Scola, C.J. Watson, [Chris] Copeland. Of course, Granger’s an All-Star. So their second unit is just as good as the first. So they’re a deep team, they’re talented, well-balanced, well-coached. So they’ll be a challenge,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained, prior to his team’s walk-through session. “I think the Pacers are going through the same thing with Granger. You have an All-Star type player—in our case, an MVP—there’s going to be a lot of attention on that. But you’re also looking at two teams that are fighting for something. The Pacers have established themselves. They’ve been a great organization for a long time and this is the start.”
Being a veteran, Granger isn’t prone to overhyping an exhibition contest, but he knows that this season, the Bulls and Pacers will likely be battling it out in the Central Division race through April and then, potentially facing off in the postseason.
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing a little bit about it because people haven’t played in so long, so you hear a little bit about it, but like I said, you don’t want to read too much into preseason. I don’t expect to play anymore than 20, 24 minutes. I’m sure the Bulls won’t play their guys that long either. You’ve got a lot of guys you’ve got to get into the game and it’s a preseason game. A lot of kinks you’ve got to work out. There’s going to be a couple airballs probably, guys missing assignments. It’s the first preseason game,” he said. “You don’t want to read too much into a preseason game, but it is the Bulls and they’re still going to be there at the end of the year. When Derrick Rose comes back and they’ve still got Luol Deng, they’ve still got Boozer, they’ve still got Noah, Jimmy Butler’s coming along, so they’re definitely a contender, as well. They’re going to be our rival again this year.
[MORE: Rose set to make return, finally]
“You want to see [the rivalry] at full strength because you want to know that to get where you want to go, you had to beat the best. You had to beat the best team that given year. You don’t want any asterisks on your successes.”
Vogel, his coach, downplayed the importance of the game, but tacitly admitted that it was a big deal for Granger’s continued recovery.
“Is there such a thing as a big preseason game? No,” he joked.
“[Granger] looks great. They’re being cautious with his knee and taking the right steps, so they don’t make him vulnerable to a re-injury or anything like that. But the knee is very strong and like every player on our team, he’s had some really good days and some not-so-good days, so it’s going to be a process. But he looks healthy. That’s the biggest thing,” the coach added. “There’s no limitations, they [the Pacers’ training staff] told me, in what I can play him, so he might lead our team in minutes, just to help sort of build that conditioning. Game timing is one of the biggest things in his recovery, in getting back. So there’s no minutes restriction and I’m not going to play him 48 minutes, but probably upwards of 25 to 30.”
After his own experience, Granger has empathy for what Rose went through and while the Bulls and Pacers will be fighting tooth and nail for the foreseeable future, he’s grateful that the point guard will be back on the court for the rival squad.
“I’ve been going through the same thing that he’s been going through. His injury, obviously, has a lot longer rehab than mine had, but it’s a mental process that you really have to get over because basketball, we put so much torque to our joints, especially your knee. When you’re jumping and you’re cutting, if it’s not right, then you won’t have confidence in it and you won’t be able to play your game, so I definitely sympathize with his situation,” he explained. “The players, we all play for different teams, but we’re all kind of on the same team. You never want to see a player from another team go down, whether they’re your friend or not. It’s just kind of the thing about basketball. We’re always rooting for each other and I’m just glad that he’s healthy.”
Vogel chimed in: “It’s always bad for the league when their stars are out with injuries. Unfortunately, what Derrick and Danny Granger had to go through last year, it’s good to see them in uniform.”
But when it comes to his role in the wake of Stephenson’s emergence, Indiana’s much-improved group of reserves and the ascendancy of fellow natural small forward Paul George, the recent recipient of a maximum contract, Granger is simply happy to be playing again.
“They ask me that every day. I’m still rehabbing. That’s not the issue right now,” he said of whether or not it matters to him if he’s in the Pacers’ starting lineup. “I think the issue right now is just getting me back into rhythm, getting me back to where I was two years ago. Like I said, it’s still preseason. We’ve still got a long way to go.”