Don't think, just play.
For Danny Granger, that simple advice is easier said than done. Granger knows how to play basketball at an elite level, but his body isn't physically ready to play like it. Worse, his mind knows his body isn't ready which goes a long way to explaining why Granger made just one of his first 14 shots over the first two games of his comeback.
"90 percent of the time that I'm playing I'm thinking about my leg, thinking about can I do this move, can I do that move," Granger said. "Sometimes instincts take over and I just do stuff, but for the most part that's the thing (dealing with leg) that is focused in my head."
In the fourth quarter of a tight game against Golden State on Tuesday, Granger was on the floor as the Pacers were trying to extend their four-point lead. Granger took a pass from Paul George, cut hard to the right and rose up to knock down a jumper before Klay Thompson could recover. Granger's 15th shot of his comeback looked a lot like the thousands of other shots he'd made earlier in his career.
"That was an instinctual shot," Granger said "All my coaches said, they said you didn't think about that one, you just played."
Granger is going through a difficult process now in public view, but the more often he can rise up for shots without thinking, the more confidence he'll have that he is ready to play. Granger made a few more "instinctual" shots against the Clippers on Thursday which just adds another thin layer of confidence.
"The more I'm playing in the heat of the moment, my mind goes away from my injury and I just play, but trying to stay in that zone is just tough right now," Granger admitted.
Figuring out when Granger will be back to just playing basketball without thinking about his knee is anyone's guess. Granger hopes he'll be feeling normal within a few weeks but made the point that he's still feeling some discomfort in the knee, so it isn't all mental at this point. Every day comes with a fresh assessment of where he stands.
One thing was for sure, Granger didn't sound like he would be ready to play a significant role as a starter any time soon. With the way Lance Stephenson is playing, that may not be a bad thing. If Granger can knock down shots off the bench like he did against the Clippers, the team may benefit more in the long run this year.
"If I need to play that role for this team, yeah," Granger said when asked about settling on a reserve role. "I can embrace any role, once I stop worrying about my leg and just play."
Again, Granger just wants to play like he knows he can. Rehab has been long and difficult, keeping him sidelined while desperately wanting to join his teammates in their success this season. Being part of that success is more important than any pretense surrounding a defined role as a starter.
"I've waited nine months, basically," Granger said. "Whether I'm starting or not, that's so far away from what I'm thinking now"
Right now, Granger appears committed and/or resigned to the fact that he has to be patient with his play and what he can offer the Pacers at this point. Frank Vogel must also be patient while continually figuring out a way to manage Granger's comeback while also putting him in position to help the team more than he hurts it.
The transition to playing with new faces in new places was a known adjustment heading into this process and that adjustment is fully underway. But it will take some time before anyone -- Granger, his teammates, coaches and fans -- stop thinking about it and just play.