Owners of the Eastern Conference's best record, the Indiana Pacers are about to get even stronger.
Former All-Star Danny Granger is set to make his season debut Friday night as the Pacers host the Houston Rockets.
After missing nearly all of 2012-13 with a knee injury, Granger has been working his way back from a strained left calf.
"I'm excited to finally be able to play. ... I feel ready now," said Granger, averaging 18.1 points over the course of his career. "This is my (ninth) year, I've played a lot of basketball games. I'm happy to finally be playing this season, I'm definitely excited."
While Granger is only expected to see about 15-20 minutes in this game, he could take on a bigger role as the season progresses.
"Having Danny back on the floor with me, it will be special," said forward Paul George, who's emerged as one of the NBA's best players during Granger's absence. "It's like having your big brother back out there."
George, averaging a team-best 23.8 points, dismissed the notion that he and Granger won't be able to play together.
"It's time to move beyond that," George said. "It's bigger than that. What we got going here is special."
Indiana (20-5) is coming off its first set of back-to-back losses, falling 101-96 to Detroit on Monday and 97-94 at Miami on Wednesday. The Pacers led by as many as 15 in the third quarter against the Heat but were outscored 12-2 over the final 3:09.
"We lost the game to an elite team," said George, who scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half. "Teams are going to play their best games against us, and it's just something that we haven't been used to. It's nothing that we can't get better at, it's nothing that we're not ready for, it's just now we have that awareness."
The Pacers will try to bounce back against the Rockets (17-9), who have dropped three straight in the series. Houston, though, has gone 8-1 against the East this season, with its only loss coming 123-117 in overtime at Philadelphia on Nov. 13 with leading scorer James Harden sidelined.
The Rockets have won four of six after cruising to a 109-94 victory over Chicago on Wednesday. Dwight Howard led the way with 23 points while Harden and Chandler Parsons scored 19 apiece.
"We're having some early success, but we're not happy with where we're at," Howard said. "We want to continue to get better. We don't want to get satisfied."
Houston outscored the Bulls 66-40 in the paint and closed the third quarter with a 15-1 run.
"That was tremendous," said Harden, averaging 24.4 points. "We've been striking out these last couple of games in closing quarters and (coach Kevin McHale) has been preaching to us to make sure we go on a little run to close every quarter out. Tonight we did it and we've got to be consistent with that."
Jeremy Lin returned to practice Thursday, but it's unclear if he will be available after missing the last two games with a back injury.
Disgruntled big man Omer Asik (thigh, knee) may also be getting close. Asik, who won't be traded despite recent rumors, is expected to play when healthy.
"It's going to take a total team effort for us to win a championship," Howard told the team's official website. "I know he's had a tough time, but the only thing we can do as a team is continue to lift him up and to just try to help him understand that he's a big part of this team. I know he might not feel that way, but he is."
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved