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My, How Lance Has Grown

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 19, 2013, 1:35 AM

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One year and one day ago, he was a bench jockey, noticed only for flashing a choke sign after LeBron James missed a free throw in Game 3 of the Pacers' playoff series with Miami.

Two days ago he was a non-factor, hitting just 1-of-7 shots in a loss at Madison Square Garden that threatened to shift the momentum of the series.

But here was Lance Stephenson, all 22 years of him, dominating one of the most important – and best – games ever played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Here was Lance Stephenson, becoming the fifth starter to lead the team in scoring in this series with a career-high 25 points, and adding 10 rebounds and zero turnovers in his 34 minutes. Here was Lance Stephenson, playing an essential and fearless role as the Pacers advanced past New York to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2004, back when he was a 13-year-old kid on the playgrounds of Brooklyn and merely dreaming of playing in the NBA. Here was Lance Stephenson, screaming at the top of his lungs and pointing at the fans who were screaming at the top of their lungs as the final seconds wound down on his Broadway-worthy performance.

“This is the best game of my life,” he said in an interview before leaving the court.

It had to be. The only games that could even compare were the state championship games his high school team won, but this was different. This was a game played on national television in a sold-out and gold-out arena against his hometown NBA team, the Knicks, for a chance to meet Miami for the conference championship.

Kids grow up fast these days, but none faster than Stephenson. As a rookie, he watched the playoff series with Chicago in street clothes, essentially suspended by the team for some sort of internal transgression. Last year, he played all of 12 garbage-time minutes in the postseason over four games, scoring all of six points. Danny Granger's injury, however, yanked him into the starting lineup and he responded. Not every game, but often enough to make former team president Larry Bird look like he had more ESP than ESPN for taking him in the second round of the 2010 draft.

Bird, by the way, got an all-caps tip of the cap from Stephenson in a post-game tweet: “I'm so blessed I want to thanks (sic) GOD, my family, my kids, my team, LARRY BIRD, pacers fans & everyone that believed in me. Thanks”

Who wouldn't believe in him now, after a game like this, before turning 23 years old?

“Unbelievable,” coach Frank Vogel said. “He's got no playoff experience whatsoever, but he has some of the best basketball instincts I've been around. He's a gamer. Put him in a situation like this, Game 6, and a close-out game, the kid's got a lot of guts and great, great basketball instincts.”

Stephenson said he was so excited for this game that he had trouble sleeping, and it showed from the opening tip. He scored on a reverse layup out of the halfcourt offense on the game's first possession, barely beating the shot clock buzzer. But then, on the Pacers' second possession, he fired a three-pointer that was so long and left that it appeared to miss the rim by about three feet.

OK, he wasn't going to hit three-pointers tonight. Layups were no problem, though. He had four in the first quarter, two in the second.

Perhaps the most telling play of the game, however, came late in the second period, when he drove hard to the basket and was knocked down hard by Knicks center Tyson Chandler. Stephenson has gained a reputation for milking moments like that, laying longer on the floor than seems necessary. This time he popped right back up, but made no move toward Chandler. Following a timeout, he hit two free throws. He closed the quarter with a three-point play after drawing a foul on another drive to the basket, finishing the half with 16 points.

Stephenson didn't register a single stat in 12 third-quarter minutes, but re-emerged in the fourth when the Knicks threatened to steal the moment with a three-point barrage. His back-door layup on a pass from David West tied the game at 92. After missing another three-pointer, he made one of the biggest plays of the game when he picked off a steal in New York's halfcourt, raced downcourt with the look of a man bent on doing damage, hit a left-handed layup, drew a foul from J.R. Smith and converted the three-point play. He followed by rebounding Carmelo Anthony's miss to give the Pacers another possession, in which he drove hard to the basket and was knocked own again by Chandler, who fouled out on the play.

Stephenson hit both foul shots, giving the Pacers a 97-92 lead with 3:12 left. The Knicks never got closer than four points after that.

Stephenson, the individual from the playgrounds, is emerging as a team player of the highest order. Every interview with him brings the kind of words that only flow from a purist. There's always talk of playing hard, playing together, playing for one another, and usually something about taking away the opponent's “airspace.”

Once a major question mark, he's becoming an exclamation point who can lift the Pacers to another level.

“I was just talking to one of the guys,” Sam Young said in the locker room. “If Lance plays like that throughout, I don't think we can be beat. Lance has a gift that's rare and if we can just get it out of him every game we're going to be tough.”

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