Stephenson aces his biggest test
It was easy not to notice what he did, given all the clamor going on around him. He wasn’t the one to produce a triple-double, and had the lowest point total of the starters.
Still, Lance Stephenson turned in a significant performance for the Pacers on Sunday simply by playing well. He had 13 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals, three turnovers and a blocked shot – not exactly Paul George-like numbers, but still a vital contribution. Considering it was the first meaningful playoff action for the 22-year-old, it qualified as a milestone.
Stephenson was perhaps the Pacers’ greatest question mark entering the playoffs. He’s in his first season as a starter, a status that came courtesy of Danny Granger’s absence, and had played all of 12 garbage-time playoff minutes last season.
How would he respond to the ramped-up pressure of the playoffs?
Just fine, it turned out. He was knocked around like everyone else, and didn’t flinch or over-react. He produced better than his regular season averages in all the major box score categories in his 41 minutes, and was the major factor in limiting Atlanta’s veteran guard Devin Harris to eight points.
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“He didn’t play any differently, which is what we asked of him,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.” He’s played 89 or 90 games this year, and (we told him) it’s not going to be much different. Just go out and play your game.
“The one thing you can say about Lance Stephenson, he’s a gamer. When you put him in that environment, you really don’t have a lot of question marks whether he’s going to do well or not.”
Stephenson warmed up to the challenge. He had just two points after the first quarter, when George Hill scored 13 of the Pacers’ 34 points, and had a rather anonymous four points, two rebounds and two assists at halftime. He was a major part of the third-quarter charge that won the game for the Pacers, scoring six points, and made the game’s biggest play in the fourth period.
Running the baseline from right to left, he rebounded Roy Hibbert’s missed 15-footer underneath the basket and quickly tossed the ball out to George Hill, who drained a three-pointer that gave the Pacers a 93-81 lead. The Hawks had been on a run, trimming a 16-point lead to as few as eight, but made no serious threats after that play.
Stephenson was wearing a blue “Born Ready” T-shirt in the early pre-game warmups, which prompted questions about his readiness for playoff basketball. Was he truly ready if he were making statements with a T-shirt? It’s one thing for proven playoff veteran Reggie Miller to don a Superman T-shirt and lead his team to crucial postseason victories in 2000, but Lance Stephenson?
Turns out he was ready. This day, at least. Afterward, he offered no proclamations, just calm perspective.
“Just stay sharp, don’t be out of control,” he said of his mental approach to the game. “Just limit my mistakes and hit the easy shots that they give to me. Just try to be as aggressive as possible to help my teammates win.”
Stephenson stood out only for his raging immaturity his rookie season, two years ago. This season, he’s gradually earned his teammates’ trust. Sunday, he might have clinched it for good.
“Lance has all the ability in the world,” David West said. “The biggest key for him is to not get too down on himself when things aren’t going his way. You obviously can’t get too high or excited about making one or two good plays. That’s the thing I’ve been echoing to him all year. Just try to make sure he understands the impact he can have on the game. What he did today, I don’t think it’s surprising to us. It’s just what he’s supposed to do.”