Danny Granger scored 5,919 points in the past four years, more than Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Brandon Roy and Paul Pierce. He became an All-Star, a member of Team USA and a top-10 pick in fantasy drafts. But every April, Granger went home, to dodge playoff games on TV so he wouldn't be reminded of what he was missing. All those points were making him famous, but they weren't getting him where he yearned to go.
"I once scored 26 points per game and we still missed the playoffs," Granger said. "It makes you ask yourself, 'If that isn't enough, what do I have to do?' "
Granger could have easily blamed the Pacers for not surrounding him with more talent, but he saw Kobe Bryant carry an undermanned Lakers team to the playoffs in 2007, LeBron James do the same for the Cavaliers in 2008 and Dwyane Wade with the Heat in 2009. They would obviously need reinforcements to contend for championships, but genuine superstars can usually reach the postseason even when shorthanded. Two years ago, no one scored more points than Granger and still missed the playoffs. Last year, only Monta Ellis did.
"To be one of those really good players you can't just score 26 a game," Granger said. "You have to keep the other team's top guy from scoring, too."
The Pacers are 9-8, off to their best start in five years, when Granger was a rookie and Ron Artest was still on the roster. Back then, Artest would keep Granger in the gym after practice and trade body blows during games of one-on-one. Granger was an Artest protégé, a budding stopper, but then Artest left and the roster was gutted and the Pacers needed someone to put the ball in the basket. The Lone Granger was born, a transcendent gunner who shot better than 40 percent from three-point range but averaged fewer than six rebounds and could not always defend other elite wings.
"As my scoring picked up, I became more attuned to offense," Granger said. "And, of course, it's harder to keep up the defensive intensity when you're losing."
For four straight years the Pacers failed to crack 40 wins, finishing last season with 32, the fewest in two decades. Team president Larry Bird told the Indianapolis Star that Granger needed to become more consistent on defense, a point illustrated by Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, who buried Granger on the bench behind Durant, Andre Iguodala and Rudy Gay at the World Championship last summer in Turkey.
"If your best player is not committed to what you're doing defensively, you're not going to have a good team," said Pacers coach Jim O'Brien.
Granger spent much of his down time at the World Championship observing point guard Chauncey Billups -- how he prepared for games, motivated teammates, addressed coaches and somehow knew what everyone was doing on the floor and off. At 27, Granger recognizes it is time to grow into a leadership role, and while he is not as outspoken as Billups, he can still set a valuable example.
"Danny is not a dominant personality," O'Brien said. "But he has decided he wants to be our best defensive player and there's really no better leadership than that."
Granger came into this season with the goal of guarding the opposition's top scorer every night, making the All-Defensive team and going somewhere other than home in April. He ordered cut-ups of Artest to remind himself of the determination required. The Pacers attribute their turnaround to the development of center Roy Hibbert, the acquisition of point guard Darren Collison and Granger's renewed commitment to defense, which has become contagious. The Pacers rank second in the NBA in opposing field-goal percentage, a statistic so important to O'Brien that he provides daily updates to the team on where they stand.
"The message has always been, 'If you're good enough to get in the top 10 in field goal defense, you're probably going to get in the playoffs,' " O'Brien said.
He has already used Granger on Durant, James, Bryant and Joe Johnson. Two weeks ago, when Clippers guard Eric Gordon scored 11 points in the first quarter against the Pacers, O'Brien switched Granger on him, and Gordon finished with 19 points on 5-of-17 shooting.
"He always had the ability to do this," O'Brien said. "He just wasn't as focused on it."
The effort Granger is expending on defense may be hurting his production slightly. His scoring is down nearly two points per game, but his assists, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage are all up. Most important, the Pacers have won road games against the Lakers and Heat, and on Tuesday night in Sacramento, Granger scored 37 points with seven rebounds and two steals while fighting off the flu.
"In other years we were hoping to win," he said. "This year we can play with the best, beat the best. There is no reason we should not make the playoffs."
Granger credits Bird and general manager David Morway, who warned him long ago that he would have to wait through an extended rebuilding process, but promised a payoff at the end. They upheld their side of the agreement, trading for Collison, sticking with Hibbert, giving the Lone Granger some company. He still leads the Pacers in scoring, and probably will for the foreseeable future, but he now has the opportunity to lead them in other ways as well.