The most dangerous threat to the Miami Heat’s chances for Eastern Conference domination is the relationship on display at a downtown hotspot full of gawking fans, two men talking without a hint of the rivalry so many predict. In the good-natured barbs, in the private and quiet moments of respect over the buzz of the bar, and in the ease of mentor and protégé sharing a night out on the town, the friendship between a blossoming superstar and his 29-year-old mentor says everything about why the Indiana Pacers have a better chance than anyone to beat the Miami Heat in a seven-game playoff series.
Paul George, 22, has his Steelers hat on backward. His black Nike sweater with the hoodie. And his jokes about Danny Granger’s “old-man game.” Granger, his finger wrapped after having it drained at a hospital a few hours earlier, switches between marveling “wow!” as Stephen Curry goes off for 54 points on the big screen above them and boasting loud and confidently that he owns George in the Xbox matches that mark Pacers’ road games.
“I dominate FIFA,” Granger boasts.
“I’m by far the best on FIFA,” George says at the exact same moment.
They are talking over one another, at one another, laughing, so it’s hard to keep up with the smack talking. Suffice it to say it is intense, continuous and really funny.
“A bunch of us play, there’s like four or five of us on the team who play,” Granger offers.
“And I dominate most of the time,” George says.
“I dominate,” Granger says.
They go down the list: Who bests whom at FIFA, at Call of Duty, at the outdoor paintball course they head to in the offseason in the Los Angeles area, where they live and often hang out. These are friends, comfortable together and genuinely close, and so the mood seems so normal and down to earth it’s hard to remember you’re with two NBA stars every time a fan sheepishly approaches asking for a photo.
It’s also why Granger’s return, far from the narrative being crafted that he and George cannot co-exist, is a boon to a team with a real chance at a postseason run.
All season, quietly, the Pacers have played postseason-style basketball with the grinding, intense, team-first effort that makes them Miami’s greatest threat. They are the best defensive team in the league, they have the NBA’s second-best rebounding rate, they own the third-most blocks per game, and they play an intense and all-in style that has led to wins with gritty final scores like 82-81, 81-75, 80-76. It has also led them to a record that puts them second in the Eastern Conference.
This has all happened without Granger, who returned two games ago – and has struggled with his shot, as he tends to early in seasons – after a nine-month hiatus from a knee tendon injury. Last season, Granger was the team’s leading scorer. Now he returns needing to fit into a world in which the younger George has assumed a leading role at the very position he plays.
The two men are side by side, at a table with George’s brother and a few friends, but they get serious – and protective of the other – when the question of their supposed chemistry issues comes up.
“Danny’s been like a big brother to me,” George says. “He’s really been a mentor to me. He’s been a big brother. Anything that I needed to learn or that I needed help with or getting adjusted to, Danny was there. So early on I felt like we had a brother relationship.”
There’s no doubting that the two men, in many NBA locker rooms, would be rivals. Rivals for playing time, for the spotlight, for the leadership role, for the glory, for the next big contract or the ego-driven need the Lakers keep exhibiting to simply feel like The Man. But the Pacers are different. It’s why Roy Hibbert said Wednesday he’d pay Lance Stephenson’s $35,000 fine for being a good teammate and having his back during the Wednesday shoving match that got Hibbert and Golden State’s David Lee suspended. It’s why Indiana’s defense is so focused and intense. It’s why the Pacers rotate so well, why they buy in, why George feels a genuine ease with every guy on the roster, why Granger seems so comfortable with the idea of turning over his role to the others.
These guys – led first and foremost by George and Granger – actually really like each other.
“I think the biggest deal about it is the assumptions since I was coming back that there’d be a competition between us, when it’s actually the opposite,” Granger says. “The way he can break defenses down, the way he can create, I can just stand, catch and shoot, drive – it makes my job easier. He’s coming in at such a young age – he’s 22 now – I’m going to be 30 in a month and a half.
“So I’m about to have a mid-life crisis,” Granger says. George laughs at him. “So I’m 30, you know, I have no problem – I’ve been in the league eight years – I have no problem passing the mantle to him, to leave the team to Roy and George.” Granger looks at George, right in the eye. “Those guys really, even David, those are the nucleus of this team. I’m getting older now, and the fact that we drafted Roy, then we drafted PG, I was drafted here, Lance Stephenson was drafted here, Tyler was drafted here. My whole team I watched get drafted. I’ve watched all of them grow. So I have no problem passing the mantle. At all.”
This is a handover – no, a sharing of responsibility and opportunity and, yes, a sharing and passing on of glory – that began with Granger’s blessing two years ago, when George was a 19-year-old kid getting ready for the NBA draft.
“We had gone through the draft and we were working out together,” Granger said. “It was the day of draft day, and – we have the same agent – I’d been working out with him for about a month. So I got about five calls from Larry Bird. Larry Bird never calls me. And he’s like, ‘Danny, I need you to call me back. Danny, I need you to call me back.’
“Finally, I call him back, and he’s like, ‘Ah, what do you think of this kid Paul George?’
“I’ve been working out with Paul.”
“He’s like, ‘Yeah, tell me what you think.’’’
Granger stops the story to laugh, loudly, and as he does he looks again at George, and George, almost embarrassed, looks down and laughs, too. He obviously has heard this story before, and the moment seems as far from Kobe-Dwight as you can possibly get in the NBA.
“I say, ‘You better take him.’ That’s what I’m saying. ‘Dude, you gotta take him.’
“Is he good?” Bird asked.
“Dude. He’s really, really good.”
“All right, that’s all I wanted to hear,” Bird said. “Bye.”
“And that was it,” Granger says. “And later that night we selected him.”
The green light Granger gave to bring in George two years ago has the Pacers now primed for a deep postseason run.
“Honestly, I think we’re selling ourselves short if we don’t think we can win it all this year,” George says. “Across the whole board we have the whole makeup of a championship team. I think we’ve got the experience, we’ve got the size, we’ve got the shot-making ability, our defense is phenomenal. We play great team ball. Just everything just ties in together in terms of us having a shot at winning it all this year.”
Granger helps that lofty goal. He’s a catch-and-shoot player who can benefit from George’s ability to create with a handle that’s stunning for a guy who’s 6-9. George’s size and defensive ferocity mean he can D-up on LeBron, but Granger, at 6-8, can also help. And Granger is a leader, a vet who commands respect from refs and other players, and another weapon for a Pacers team that while great needed the added layer of depth.
None of this is to say the Pacers will beat the Heat. Miami is a force right now, playing so well – LeBron’s all-time greatness, Dwyane Wade’s continued excellence, Chris Bosh also great – they will be tough for anyone. For everyone.
In fact, before Granger showed up at the bar, George and his friends had the can-LeBron-be-better-than-Jordan argument. It was far from decisive – some said yes, some said, no, George was respectful but non-committal of LeBron’s chances – but it was also clear that all of them know just how historically great LeBron James is playing, George included.
In Granger, the Pacers have more than a scoring threat, or the team’s leading scorer from last season, or another physical body to throw at King James. They have a leader and friend who fits seamlessly into – and helped create – perhaps the most copasetic locker room in sports.
“Sometimes on NBA teams you’ve got guys competing with each other,” Granger says. “That’s the thing about our team. We compete against the other team. Whoever’s scoring, whoever’s playing, whoever’s passing the ball, whoever’s doing whatever, we’re rooting for that person. I think Frank Vogel, he did a good job of instilling that in all of us. Play for your teammates.”
After some more banter, Granger leaves, and everyone says their goodbyes. This is when the fans come, seeing an opening, asking George for photos, showing him pictures of their pets, telling him how much they appreciate him, rooting on him and his Pacers as they shyly walk away, stunned they’ve met him.
But George, his star clearly rising, still has his mind on Granger. His friends are watching more of Curry’s magic, but George looks toward the door, to where Granger was a few minutes ago.
“I think,” he says, almost to himself, “that the reason we’ve been the team we are is Danny. Whatever you call it, our franchise guy, he’s been so open. He’s been a really, really good guy.”
And that’s the key: Granger’s return isn’t the threat of one star wanting to take back what’s his. It’s a friend returning to the fold, a guy who has known since he trained three years ago with George that this day would and should come.