Maybe Indiana is figuring out how to win without Granger

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For those of us who came into this season saying the Indiana Pacers were likely the second best team in the East, their ugly 3-6 start didn’t look good at all. Especially if you watched them play and saw an offense that looked as lethargic as you felt right after your third helping of Thanksgiving dinner.

But the Pacers are sort of to the NBA what the Los Angeles Kings were to the NHL last season (you remember that league, right?) — a team better built for the playoffs and one that needed its parts to come together before they could click.

And the Pacers will not have all their pieces until likely February — Danny Granger is out with knee issues. He was key to their offense because, although he is no superstar, he could create shots and be the guy they could dump the ball to late in the clock when other things didn’t work.

But the Pacers are 3-1 in their last four may finally be figuring it out by trying not to get anyone else to be Granger, something pointed out in a fantastic article by Paul Flannery at SB Nation.

Paul George started trying to be Granger and that didn’t really work.

“I really took it upon myself that I had to play well every night,” George said. “I think that’s something that kind of messed me up in the head a little bit because when I had moments to score I was kind of speeding myself up, just the anxiety that I had to knock that shot down.”

David West talked about how the Pacers need to just be themselves, not try to be Granger, if they are going to win.

“I don’t think you have to do that,” West said. “It’s about playing your game, maximizing what you do and we had opportunities down the stretch where guys just made plays.”

It’s all about the offensive end of the floor — the Pacers are actually playing the best defense in the NBA based on points per possession. And like a great defensive team should do, they are grinding the pace down to limit opponent opportunities (25th in pace in the league).

But they still have to score. They need Roy Hibbert to get back to finishing around the rim — he is shooting 37.9 percent this season, down 12 percentage points from last season, in part because the 7’2” center is shooting just 48.9 percent inside the restricted area. (Stats via Hoopdata.)

They also need George to score, but his way. Which he is starting to do — he dropped 37 on the Hornets.

But ultimately here is the thing about Indiana — they will be there in the end in the playoffs. And once in a setting where the pace already slows down, where defense matters more, where being solid at every position matters, they are still going to be a very tough out.

Rockets bench hams it up over Andre Roberson missed free throw (video)

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Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.

Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.

It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.

Isaiah Thomas: ‘Mentally and emotionally, I’m not here’

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Isaiah Thomas previously explained his emotions in a statement, but the Celtics guard spoke publicly yesterday for the first time since the death of his sister in a car crash just before the playoffs.

Thomas, via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

“Mentally and emotionally I’m not here,” Thomas said after Game 4, the first time he has spoken publicly since his sister’s death. “So I just feed off of what the guys give me. They give me a lot of confidence. I can’t do it without those guys. They believe in me. Being here is what makes me sane and makes me feel somewhat normal through these tough times.”

Thomas has played well for Boston, which won twice in Chicago to even its series with the Bulls, 2-2. It’s remarkable considering the heavy emotional burden and extra travel, going to Seattle for his sister’s funeral then joining the Celtics in Chicago.

His teammates have clearly rallied around him, and that surely helps. But I can’t even imagine how he’s simultaneously handling such a tragic family situation and the biggest games of his career.

Kyrie Irving knocks flamingo from Pacers fan’s hands (video)

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Pacers super fan Matt Asen brings his lucky flamingo to each game.

He also annoyed the heck out of Kyrie Irving by trying to hand it, rather than the ball, to the Cavaliers guard.

James Harden reveals he’s playing through ankle injury

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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James Harden didn’t lead the Rockets in scoring in their Game 4 win over the Thunder yesterday.

He didn’t even rank second – or third.

Nene, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each outscored Harden, who scored 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 0-for-7 on 3-pointers.

What happened to the Houston star?

Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said he has been hobbled by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3 of this first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden made the revelation to ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Rockets’ 113-109 Game 4 victory on Sunday afternoon.

“It was pretty tough; we don’t make excuses,” Harden said in a news conference when asked about his health. “We just try to go out there and get the job done. You build trust, and trust in your teammates all year long. When there’s moments like this, guys step up and they did tonight. We have another opportunity in a few days to go out there and win on our home court, and we’re going to have to get off to a really good start.”

Many players are grinding through injuries this time of year. Is Harden’s exceptionally bad? There’s no way of telling from the outside.

But he didn’t look quite right in Game 4, and if he’s hobbled, that opens the door slightly wider for Oklahoma City to come back from its 3-1 deficit.