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Stephenson Ready for All-Star Bid – Whenever

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 17, 2014 | 1:15 a.m.

I walked into the Pacers' locker room following Thursday's game thinking it would be best if Lance Stephenson did not make the All-Star team this season. Too much too soon, you know? Might make the 23-year-old who knew celebrity too early in life go off the carefully laid rails on which the Pacers glide. Might be better for him to keep playing with a chip on his shoulder, seeking respect.

I walked out thinking it likely wouldn't be a problem at all. Go for it, kid. Have your fun. Have a Hurricane or two while you're in New Orleans, just don't forget to take your ID.

In a season full of new heights, Stephenson one-upped himself again in the Pacers' 117-89 demolition of the Knicks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He not only scored 28 points, he played 35 minutes, 14 seconds without committing a turnover, added four rebounds and four assists, and kept the sellout crowd revved up throughout with his playground flair.

Stephenson breaking new ground is getting to be an old story. This season alone he's constructed three triple-doubles, eight double-doubles, surpassed his previous career high scoring total three times, and set career highs for assists, three-pointers and minutes played. His scoring average, 13.7 points, hardly seems All-Star worthy, but his recent momentum, his all-around game and the fact he's doing it for the team with the NBA's best record makes him a legitimate candidate.

Thursday's game, though, lifted him another rung because it came with former Pacer Reggie Miller in the house, helping call the game from courtside for TNT's national broadcast, against New York and amid the growing rumbles for him to get a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. It likely influenced the vote of a few of the conference coaches who will vote for the reserves.

Stephenson has made a pitch for himself with a viral video that defies description. It's a creative effort, to be sure, but also one that raises questions about what impact playing in the game and spending a weekend in New Orleans with the NBA's biggest stars might have on his young ego. Would it transport him back to his Born Ready days in Brooklyn, which required years for him to get out of his system?

That wasn't the impression he gave in a quick one-on-one exchange following Thursday's game, after the media mob thinned out at his locker.

Did this game help your case for being an All-Star?

“Uh,” he said, pausing. “I think so. I'm playing all right and my teammates are helping me out, so …”

Do you feel you deserve to make the team?

“Hopefully,” he said. “I'm praying. That's a bonus. My goal is just to play well and be the X-factor and bring something to the table. To be mentioned as an all-star is a blessing.”

Would you be angry if you don't get selected?

“No,” he said quickly. “Not at all. I'm happy right now. We're all playing well. We're playing as a unit. That was just a bonus to me, to be nominated as an All-Star. If I don't make it, I'm still going to work hard and play good and have a chip on my shoulder.”

Have you talked with Larry Bird lately?

“Yeah,” he said, after pausing, smiling and laughing quietly.

What did he tell you?

“He said something about my Sir Lancealot video.”

What did he think of it?

“He just … he just said I could be in a movie one day. He said he liked it.”

Has anyone told you to be careful and not get too carried away with all your recent success and fame?

“I hear that all the time. I humble myself. I remember when I was behind the bench and suited up. I remember all those days and I watched all the players ahead of me and learned the game. And now that I have the opportunity, I'm going to embrace it and never change. That's just me. I'm humble.”

It doesn't sound like he'd skip his flight and strut home from New Orleans if he made the All-Star team, does it?

It's easy to see how some could get that impression, though, from watching Stephenson in games such as Thursday's. On a team filled with mature, rather staid professionals, he's the one who does things to draw attention to himself. This one brought the usual assortment. He sat on the court for long stretches when he was knocked down and play stopped. He threw behind-the-back passes. He forced a lob pass to try to set up a dunk. He celebrated made shots and successful passes with gestures and facial expressions.

Coming out of a timeout early in the third quarter, he even engaged a Knicks fan behind the scorer's table who was wearing a Carmelo Anthony jersey. “Better go change,” he said while puffing out his own jersey. “Better go to the gift shop.”

But moments such as those were leveled by displays of maturity when it mattered. He took a hard shot to the face from Knicks center Tyson Chandler underneath the basket. Chandler had words for him, too, but Stephenson stood stone-faced and ignored Chandler. Later, after stealing the ball from Knicks forward J.R. Smith, he avoided what looked like the pursuing Smith's attempt to knock him down by stretching out nearly horizontal and hitting a floating reverse layup. Smith still managed to commit a foul, so Stephenson stopped, swiveled his hips slightly and stared expressionless at the Knicks bench.

After converting the three-point play, he committed a foul on the inbounds pass so he could leave the game – to a standing ovation. He fairly pranced to the bench, where his teammates stood and greeted him. Paul George and David West added pats on the head.

The Knicks were impressed, too.

“Paul George is getting all the attention as the best player on the team, but (Stephenson) is the guy that really gets them going,” Raymond Felton said.

As for Stephenson's habit of playing to the crowd and annoying opponents, J.R. Smith added:

“That doesn't bother me. That's East Coast basketball.”

A little East Coast flair has done the Pacers a lot of good over the years. Their history is riddled with New York influence. From Roger Brown in the ABA to owners Mel and Herb Simon, general manager/president Donnie Walsh, coach Larry Brown and players Vern Fleming, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Sam Perkins and Ron Artest in the NBA, the contributions have flowed. And now comes Stephenson, the blossoming Brooklyn native whose future is full of intrigue.

Coach Frank Vogel liked Stephenson's video enough to show to the entire team. He admits, however, to being slightly bothered by it.

“I don't like self-promoting,” he said. “That's not us. But I don't think he's doing it for any reason other than to have some fun.”

Besides, any team would put up with a video or a hip gyration or an occasional turnover to get all the positives that Stephenson brings – not only his stat line, but his edge and his energy, which keep his teammates in a higher gear.

If Bird doesn't mind, if Vogel doesn't mind and if his teammates don't mind, nobody else's opinion matters.

“We're in his ear all the time (about containing his excitement),” George said. “But we feel he's making the right decisions and has the right judgment. He's going down the right path.

“He's played like a player on the rise in this league. If he keeps that confidence, there's going to be something special for him down the line. He's playing like an All-Star.”

Regardless of whether the honor comes this season.

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