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Hibbert, Stephenson Emerging

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 19, 2014

The Pacers await LeBron James like a gathering storm. It might be a good idea, in fact, for the local television stations to put up a crawl, warning everyone of the potential calamity that could hit Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday, when a focused and angry Miami team tries to avoid falling behind 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.

James finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals in the Pacers' Game 1 win on Sunday, but they expect more from him in Game 2. This is the kind of game in which James typically unleashes his best-player-in-the-game greatness and carries his team. Hardly anyone would be surprised if he scored 40 or more. Certainly not Paul George, who has the undesirable task of defending him.

“I think he's going to be much more aggressive with the ball,” George said following Game 1. “I think he's going to be looking to make more plays, looking to shoot more shots and really looking to get guys going.

“So it's going to be a tough night for me, but it's part of the league.”

So, what do the Pacers do to keep James within a mortal realm and avoid handing over homecourt advantage to the Heat?

“Just recognize the spots he likes to be aggressive, and make sure we're aware and accountable for that,” coach Frank Vogel said.

That's about all a coach can say, really. But the Pacers have weapons of their own, and two of them could be capable of overcoming the box score tornado that James might stir up. If Roy Hibbert remains effective and Lance Stephenson remains poised, the Heat will be hard-pressed to knock down the Pacers' balanced foundation.

Hibbert has emerged from the late-season swoon that led the Pacers to some dark places. Stephenson has shed the self-described “antics” that sometimes distracted him from his job description. They are the best “stories” the Pacers have going, and together they can provide an advantage that might be too much for James at his best to match. Or, James and Dwyane Wade at his best. Even, perhaps, James, Wade and Chris Bosh at his best.

Miami has no good matchup for the 7-2, 290-pound Hibbert, as he proved when the two teams met in last season's conference finals and he averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds. He reiterated that in Game 1, when he had 19 points and nine rebounds. Vogel isn't declaring his center unstoppable, pointing out Miami's title-tested team defense, but the stats prove Hibbert remains a major obstacle for the Heat.

And to think it was less than a month ago he went scoreless in two games against Atlanta in the first round and in Game 1 against Washington in the second round.

Hibbert's revival is a testament to the Pacers' locker room chemistry, something that had been questioned often after he had complained about “selfish dudes” following a regular season loss at Washington on March 28. Fact is, Hibbert's struggles were never about chemistry issues. They were about his sensitivity and self-imposed expectations.

“I just can't say it enough, he leaned on us for support and confidence and we were there for him,” David West said following Sunday's game. “We never doubted who he is as a ballplayer, what he brings to our team, when he's engaged and playing well.”

There was no specific turning point, West said, just a gradual recovery of his confidence.

“There were moments during that Atlanta series where he was pretty down and beating himself up,” West said. “I just think in that series it was like, 'I'm gonna fix this.' He was very open about that, asking guys what they saw, what their perspective was. I thought he went inside of himself.

“That first game against Washington, that was the lowest I've seen him in my three years with him. Because he just wanted to be himself. He's been going uphill ever since then. He's been improving because his confidence has come back.”

Confidence has never been an issue for Stephenson, who wore it like a shield while growing up on mean streets in Brooklyn. Poise, maybe, but not confidence. Stephenson used to delight in offering dances and shimmies to the fans at home games, believing the approval that came back to him helped him play better.

He crossed the line, however, when the Heat visited Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 26 – just two days before Hibbert dropped his “selfish dudes” proclamation. Stephenson was ejected from that game with 5:01 left after hitting a left-handed layup in traffic and falling down. He hopped up and ran back on defense, but paused to say something to Wade on his way and was whistled for a technical foul. It was his second of the game, the first coming as part of a double-technical with Wade in the first quarter, after Stephenson had engaged Mario Chalmers in some extracurricular activity in front of the Miami bench.

The Pacers held on for a one-point win, but that game stands as a turning point for Stephenson. He was contrite afterward, and West called for an end to his “antics.” Stephenson used that same word following Monday's practice, a day after his solid and mature Game 1 performance in which he had 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting, eight assists, four rebounds and just two turnovers in 41 minutes.

Related: Pacers Need Lance-A-Lot

“Playing against the Heat, I have to calm down my antics,” he said. “I decided I ain't going to do none of that at all, and stay poised and help my team.

“When I do certain dances and stuff and get the crowd involved, I actually play better. But if it's going to help my teammates and help me stay in the game, I'm definitely not going to do that.”

It's more than about eliminating antics, though. Stephenson is forcing fewer shots – with one notable exception on Sunday – but has been more aggressive taking the ball to the rim. He's showing leadership, too, encouraging his teammates to stay calm during timeouts, and becoming more of a facilitator on offense.

One would not normally put Stephenson and zen in the same sentence, but there's an element of that.

“He's sort of been going through this thing for the last couple weeks; he's sort of in the moment,” West said. “He understands that he's in a leadership role for us. Regardless of his age (23), guys look to him for leadership, his playmaking … guys trust his instincts and his IQ.

“For a young guy, when guys ask, 'Hey, Lance, what should I do on this play?' … which guys were asking him in the Atlanta series and in the (Washington) series, it does something to him as a young player. I think that's calmed him down, but also given him a sense that he knows he's carrying a big load for this team … in some key moments during tough, tough games.”

Maybe the question isn't whether the Pacers have an answer for James, but whether the Heat have an answer for a confident Hibbert and a poised Stephenson.

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