Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early í90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Danny Granger: The Missing Piece?

February 23 brought with it good tidings for the Indiana Pacers. Forward Danny Granger made his return to the Pacersí lineup, having not played a single game in the 2012-13 regular season after injuring his knee in the Pacersí 4-2 series loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 playoffs. Grangerís return was surely a boost for Indiana because anytime you get back a player who has led the franchise in scoring for five seasons, it has to be a good thing.

But then, just as suddenly, Granger appeared to have reinjured himself on the same left knee again. Playing against their Central Division rivals Chicago Bulls on Sunday night, Granger sat out the entire second half due to recurring pain in his left knee even as Indiana managed to sneak past the Bulls in a 97-92 win. There have already been indications of something amiss with Granger -- he had sat out the entire second half of Indianaís previous game against Toronto on March 1, as well. Also, against Chicago he went scoreless in the eight minutes he played before he skipped the second half. In all, in the five games that Granger has played limited minutes for Indiana this season, his scoring average has been down to 5.4 PPG and he is shooting only 28.6 percent from the field.

Which leaves us with the question Ė how far can Indiana go should Grangerís injury force him to miss the rest of this season?

At first glance, it would appear, a lot. After stumbling their way to a winning record (18-13) in the first couple of months of the season, the Pacers have managed to go 20-9 in this calendar year, which has pushed them up to the second best record in the Eastern Conference. In fact, the Pacers have been on a tear since the beginning of February, going 11-3 since they beat the Miami Heat on February 1 and have been 6-1 since the All-Star break. Even better, they boast an enviable 7-1 record against their three closest rivals in the Eastern Conference, Miami, Chicago and New York.

Part of Indianaís impressive showing despite Grangerís absence has been the coming-of-age of young guard, Paul George, who my co-blogger Karan Madhok waxed eloquently over in this recent piece. Equally, power-forward David West has put on a display, reminiscent of his latter years with New Orleans, this season after having a lackluster 2011-12 with the Pacers. George Hill has been impressive as well.

But will those three men alone be enough to push the Pacers past New York and Miami in the 2013 Eastern Conference Playoffs? With Roy Hibbert having performed below expectations after a formidable 2011-12, the Pacers were seemingly banking heavily on a fit and healthy Granger for the remainder of the season. Also, Indiana currently ranks among the bottom five teams in field-goal shooting percentage and are placed among the bottom half in both 3-point shooting percentage and offensive rating, respectively. Granger, who averaged a career-best 25.8 PPG in 2008-09 and whose career shooting average is 43.7 percent, was surely expected to help Indiana overcome all its offensive struggles.

But the biggest argument in favour of the Pacers needing Granger to return to peak form at the earliest is Miami. On the same Sunday night that Granger sat out the second half of the game against Chicago, the Heat, led by LeBron James, beat New York for the first time this season en route to a 14-game winning streak. Twenty-four hours later, the Heat thrashed Minnesota to extend that winning run to a franchise-best 15 games. Consequently, only a fully loaded Pacers outfit, with Granger in the mix, can hope to stop the Heat juggernaut.

And if you still donít agree, just wait for the Pacers to square off against Miami for the final time this regular season this coming Sunday night. A Miami win should make an open-and-shut case for Grangerís return.

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