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Finishing the Product

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 29, 2013, 2:35 AM

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Following many of the Pacers' practices, Lance Stephenson and assistant coach Brian Shaw engage one another in a game of around-the-world. From left-to-right around the arc of the 3-point line, they shoot until they get to the right corner, where a shot from out of bounds must go in for the game to be won.

“I always talk a little stuff against him,” Shaw said. “If he can't beat a fat, out-of-shape 47-year-old coach, how is he going to have a chance against peers of his own age? It's a fun, competitive game that serves it's purpose.”

The purpose has never been served in more dramatic fashion than on Tuesday, when Stephenson took George Hill's cross-court inbounds pass and with Dwyane Wade flying at him, swished a 3-pointer from the right corner at the third-quarter to give the Pacers a 77-70 lead.

It wasn't a game winning shot – the Heat would come back to lead by three midway through the fourth quarter – but it was as big as any in the 99-92 victory that tied the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 and guaranteed a Game 6 at the Fieldhouse on Saturday. In a game in which the Pacers hit just 3-of-14 three-point shots and relied more frequently on drives to the basket, that one was the lightning bolt from heaven that made the outcome seem ominous.

“I practice that shot a lot,” Stephenson said, referring to his games with Shaw.

If he was deadpan about in the locker room, Stephenson was nothing of the sort in the moment. He fell to the court after hitting the shot and sat there for a moment, legs stretched out in front of him, to admire his work. He glared straight ahead, taking deep breaths and rolling his shoulders, while 18,000 gold T-shirts screamed their approval.

“I just kind of shook my head,” Shaw said. “This generation, they celebrate every single thing they do.”

Stephenson had plenty to celebrate. After scoring just seven points on 2-of-10 shooting in Sunday's 18-point loss to the Heat, his got an earful from his teammates and the coaching staff. He needed to be more aggressive, they said, stay focused on the details of the game plan, remain engaged offensively and put some pressure on his defender, LeBron James. The result was Stephenson's second-best performance of the postseason: 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, just one turnover in 40 ½ minutes and credible defense on James.

Less memorable than his three-pointer, but more important, were a 17-footer that tied the game at 89 and forced a Miami timeout with 3:28 left, and an eight-footer off Hill's feed that bounced off the rim and in for a 96-92 lead at 1:01. But his renewed approach had been apparent from the start. He closed the Pacers' game-opening 11-0 run with a hard drive to the basket. He also took a rebound and made one of his classic wall-to-wall drives for a layup later in the period, and closed it with another aggressive runner to the basket.

The three-pointer was the long-distance anomaly of a game spent mostly charging toward the basket.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel had identified Stephenson as the key to the series for the Pacers before Game 2 in Miami, and it becomes more obvious with each game. He had 25 points and 10 rebounds when they closed out the Knicks on May 18, but didn't carry that momentum into the series with the Heat. He had just seven points on 2-of-10 shooting in the Pacers' Game 1 loss in Miami, along with four turnovers. He was better in Game 2, with 10 points, five assists and one turnover, and hit a crucial 3-pointer. But he slipped again in Game 3.

With his teammates' advice ringing in ears, Stephenson said he didn't sleep well on the nights following Game 3. He had played poorly, a point confirmed over and over by the hours of video that he watched. He rededicated himself to a better performance in Game 4, one more like his Game 6 against the Knicks.

“I had to make this one of the best games I've played,” he said. “I have to show people I'm ready for any competition or any challenge that comes to me.”

The 22-year-old is a work in progress, but he makes the Pacers a finished product when he plays well. Their only hope in this series is to put together a Big Five that can outnumber and outplay the Heat's Big Three of James, Wade and Chis Bosh, and Stephenson is the missing link.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra considers Bosh his X-factor, but Bosh finished with just seven points and three rebounds. Stephenson won that match-up, and the outcome was predictable.

“He's sort of a wild card for them,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “He plays very well at home here and we have to understand who he is, and when he gets it rolling it's probably going to be a good night for them.”

So now the Pacers go back to Miami for Game 6 on Thursday. Stephenson has averaged just under eight points a game in road playoff games, and struggled in most regular seasons games away from home as well. The Pacers are going to have to win another game in Miami to pull off the upset in this series, which means Stephenson likely will have to come up with a homecourt kind of performance.

“I'm very important to this team,” he said. “I can't take no days off.”

There's no longer time for that.