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Run, Lance, Run – Stephenson an X-Factor

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 18, 2013, 8:40 PM

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Three strips of white athletic tape, the kind used to wrap ankles, were spread across the wooden board above Lance Stephenson's locker to create a makeshift name plate. On it, with a black marking pen, someone wrote “Gump.”

As in Forrest Gump, the movie character.

As in “Run, Forrest, Run!” the catch-phrase from the movie.

As in Stephenson needing to push the ball and get easy fastbreak points for the Pacers whenever possible.

Stephenson has left the nickname above his locker for a month or so now as a reminder of one of his primary roles, one that will be desperately needed in the first-round playoff series with Atlanta. The Pacers tend to be a halfcourt team, and NBA scripture dictates that it's difficult to score out of a halfcourt offense in the playoffs because of ramped up defensive intensity and laser-like scouting reports. Any easy basket a team can get in transition, then, is highly valued, and Stephenson, who loves to grab a rebound and race to the other end as if being chased by a raging bull – or angry Hawk – provides the best opportunity for that.

“Lance has a special talent to push the ball and almost be a one-man fastbreak,” Paul George said recently. “That energizes us, when we see Lance flying down the court and playing at that tempo. He'll tell me, 'P, run with me, I'll find you.' That's how I get going and get in the flow of the game. Same with the other guys. If he's not pushing it at that speed, we're not the same team.”

Indiana ranks 21st in the NBA in transition points, while the Hawks are third. Closing that gap in the playoffs would greatly enhance its ability to advance to the second round. So run, Lance, run.

The Gump reference took hold when the Pacers players were shown a clip from the movie before a game. A teammate took it upon himself to attach the nickname to Stephenson's locker. Actually, it was Roy Hibbert. He didn't want it to be known, but he was outed by a teammate. Besides, Stephenson obviously doesn't mind or he would have taken it down a long time ago. And, it serves as a convenient reminder.

“I'm not going to change anything,” he said following Thursday's practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “The coaches like it when I push the ball and create for myself and others. I'm just going to do what I did during the season and bring it to the playoffs.”

Stephenson is likely the Pacers' primary X-factor in the playoffs because he's the least predictable starter and has the least amount of playoff experience – just 12 minutes spread across four games. His most memorable playoff experience so far is the choke sign he flashed at Miami's LeBron James after James missed a free throw in front of the Pacers' bench in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. He wound up apologizing for it the next day, and wound up paying for it earlier this season when the Pacers played in Miami on March 10. With the Pacers having won the two previous games in Indianapolis, James made a point of assigning himself to Stephenson and held him to six points on 1-of-5 shooting.

That game seemed to temporarily rob Stephenson of some of his bravado, setting off a six-game stretch in which he averaged just 5.7 points and hit 15-of-51 field goal attempts. He seems to have gotten it back, however, in time for the playoffs. Over the last four regular season games, he averaged 15 points and hit 21-of-40 shots.

He'll need to do more than get out and run in the playoffs, of course. He'll need to execute in the halfcourt, defend aggressively without fouling, and maintain his poise in pressure-filled circumstances. No choke signs this time around. “Last year I was on the bench trying to get in peoples' heads,” he said. “This year I'm on the floor. It's two different years.”

Stephenson at least has had a prime seat for all of the Pacers' playoff games over his two seasons with the team, so he knows in theory what it's all about. But his playing time has been inconsequential, and he certainly has no experience as a starter who will be counted upon to produce. If there's anyone who can help him convert theory to practice, it's assistant Brian Shaw, the only member of the coaching staff who has played in NBA playoff games – 127 in all.

“Lance is kind of a wild card for us,” Shaw said. “We've made it very clear to him that when he's playing his best and bringing the things that are unique to us as a team, then we're pretty hard to beat. That means if he's engaged defensively, if he's rebounding from the guard position and pushing the ball down the floor and putting pressure on the opposing team's defense, then it's going to be hard for anybody to stop us. When he doesn't, we suffer.

“There's no time for excuses. He's a young player, we understand that. We try to be patient with him, but we need him now. He just has to be focused and engaged and be pure with the game.”

And run. Of course, run.

“Definitely,” Shaw said. “We usually don't run if he's not pushing the ball.”

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