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Pacers Backcourt Moving Front and Center

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 25, 2013, 3:15 PM

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George Hill took his seat at the front table in the curtained-off interview “room” in American Airlines Arena late Friday night, and looked out at the largest media throng he's ever witnessed.

“This is the big stage, I guess,” he said. “Looks like I'm about to take a test or something.”

Actually, George had just passed one. The biggest test of his life, in fact, as far as final exams on a slab of hardwood are concerned. He had just hit four free throws in the final minute – two with 48.9 seconds left and two more with 8.3 remaining – on his way to 18 points and assuring the Pacers' 97-93 victory over Miami that tied the Eastern Conference finals series 1-1.

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His backcourt partner, the excitable Lance Stephenson, added 10 points and hit one of the game's biggest shots to help drive home an intriguing point: the Pacers' fate in this series could very well rest on their guard play. If Hill and Stephenson can outplay the Heat backcourt of Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, as they did on Friday, what chance do the Heat have of winning the series unless LeBron James finds a level of play heretofore unknown to humanity?

Hill and Stephenson combined for 28 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and three turnovers. Chalmers and Wade went for 20 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, no steals and four turnovers. It was a dramatic shift from Game 1, when Hill and Stephenson combined for just 12 points on 4-of-19 shooting and Wade and Chalmers totaled 29 points by hitting 13-of-22 shots.

Hill had chastised himself for not being aggressive enough after Game 1. TNT analyst Kenny Smith had told him that when they crossed paths after the game, and it was an undeniable critique. Hill, remember, is the reluctant point guard who still feels an urge to get back to his more familiar shooting guard position. Sometimes he seems to forget that the team's offense, and the game's tempo, lie within his hands. It was clear from the outset of Game 2 that he was more locked in.

“This team is going to thrive on me being aggressive,” he said Friday.

Aggression is not the issue for Stephenson, who at times on Friday appeared on the verge of a heart attack. While most players leave shots short when they miss, Stephenson sometimes throws shots over the rim from being so wound up. He hit just 4-of-12 shots in Game 2, but was otherwise solid with eight points, five assists, two steals and just one turnover. He also had a lead role in limiting Wade to 14 points.

Stephenson is the Pacers' least predictable player, and their X factor according to coach Frank Vogel. “When he's playing great we're very tough to beat,” he said earlier on Friday. “When he's kept in check, we're limited.”

Usually, the only person capable of keeping Stephenson in check is Stephenson. But his growth continues, even if it doesn't go in a straight line.

Friday, he found a shooting touch at the best possible time for the Pacers. Miami had taken a four-point lead with a 7-0 run, and was in position to extend the advantage after Stephenson missed a rushed 17-footer to beat the shot clock. Chris Bosh missed a three-pointer, however, and Stephenson came back with an open three-pointer off patient ball movement to make it a one-point game with 5:25 left.

After Ray Allen missed a three-pointer for Miami, Roy Hibbert answered with a layup off Hill's assist to return the lead to the Pacers.

Bosh missed another three, but then Stephenson had another one of those “terrible twos” moments, throwing up a wild, off-balance, indescribable “shot” while trying to drive on three Heat defenders. The Pacers know they're going to get plays such as that from their 22-year-old. But they'll accept it, as part of a favorable trade for all the good he can do.

“That's Lance,” David West said after Friday's game, smiling at the memory of Stephenson's more emotional moments in the game.

“He's going to make plays. I thought he hit a big three there. Most of the night his defense was solid, staying in front of Wade and forcing him to take tough shots. We know he's going to come on as this series drags on. He completes our front five.”

Stephenson is fitting in well enough, on the court and in the locker room. If he sometimes lacks control during games, that's not the case after them. He measures his words in the locker room, careful not to utter anything that might wind up on an opponent's bulletin board.

“I try to be very aggressive,” he said. “Being aggressive, you're going to have turnovers, you're going to make mistakes. You just have to play through it.

“You can't put your head down. You have to keep playing smart and it will come to you. I made some mistakes but we fought through it. It's about team. When we play together as a team, we're unstoppable.”

He didn't mean for that to be a prediction. Asked if he felt the Pacers were now in control of the series after taking homecourt advantage from the Heat, he demurred.

“I'm just happy we won,” he said. “I'm not going to say we're in control. We'll just watch film, see what the mistakes were and get ready for the next game.”

The next game is Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Stephenson has been far better than in road games. The last time he played there, he had 25 points and 10 rebounds in leading the closeout of New York. And, the last time the Pacers came home after splitting the first two games of a playoff series with Miami, they won Game 3 as well.

They'll work hard to ignore all that on Sunday, remembering the lost that series to the Heat. That challenge amounts to another test for Hill, more than anyone, since he runs the offense. He'll need to be aggressive. For extra credit, he can control the tempo, too, by making it a halfcourt game as often as possible and keeping the Heat out of transition.

“We can't focus on Game 4 and 5,” he said. “We have to focus on the next game. That's what I tell the team, don't worry about the series 1-1. Worry about the series at 0-0. Just win the next one.”