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Stephenson, Young Fill the Air Space

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 29, 2013, 4:25 PM

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It's highly doubtful Lance Stephenson ever thought about “air space” for even a micro-second while on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, but these days he can hardly have a conversation with reporters without mentioning it.

“We took away their air space.”

“We didn't take away their air space.”

Depending on whether the Pacers had just played well defensively or not, Stephenson brings up air space to comment on their level of defensive aggression, a topic not often explored in much detail on the outdoor asphalt where Stephenson first made a name for himself. It's a bold indication of his maturity as a player and person, then, that the player once known as Born Ready is gaining his greatest fame for developing a complete game. Miami's Heat would attest, having witnessed Stephenson score 20 points and effectively guard LeBron James in the Pacers' 99-92 victory on Tuesday.

Lance Stephenson, defender? Seriously, what would the guys back in Brooklyn have to say about that? But there he was, bumping bones with James, who found it more difficult to get to the basket against Stephenson – and Sam Young – from his post-up position than he had against Paul George. They not only took away his air space, as George had tried to do, but they had the raw girth to be better equpped to prevent James from bullying his way to the basket.

The math as it applies to postup situations is simple. James weighs 250 pounds. George weighs 215. Stephenson weighs 228. Young weighs 225. Containing James on the perimeter is a different issue entirely, but it's easy to see why there are better postup defenders for James than George, and why coach Frank Vogel will continue the strategy in Game 5 on Thursday.

“One of the shifts in philosophy going into Game 4 was to try multiple bodies on him rather than just leaving it all up to Paul George,” Vogel said Wednesday, before the team flew to Miami. “It saves Paul’s legs a little bit and just mixes it up for LeBron so he doesn’t get dialed in on that one defensive player’s strengths and weaknesses.”

James was about as well-contained as he can be contained on Tuesday, scoring 24 points on 8-of-18 shooting. After taking George to the basket for easy post-up baskets in Miami's win on Sunday – either four or five, depending on who's counting – he found himself settling for fadeaway jumpers against Stephenson and Young. That happened three times in the second period, twice against Stephenson and once against Young. The only time James scored off a postup came when Ian Manhimi goaltended James' turnaround on the right block early in the fourth quarter.

The Pacers' defensive strategy was partly the product of necessity. George had to leave the game with two fouls with 2:06 left in the first quarter, and with three with 4:46 left in the second. That left Stephenson and Young to do the dirty work, and they did it well.

Of James' eight field goals, four were three-pointers hit over George –when given too much air space – and another came off a layup on a give-and-go pass from Dwyane Wade against George. James also scored on a fastbreak layup over George Hill. His only field goal against Stephenson came on a postup shot that was goaltended by Manhimi. His only field goal against Young came when he beat Young off the dribble for a layup out of the halfcourt offense.

Stephenson made a quick impression on former Pacer Reggie Miller, who helped broadcast the game for TNT. When George left the game with his third foul, Miller declared, “If I'm (Heat coach) Erik Spoelstra, I'm going right at Lance Stephenson.”

Right on cue, James was isolated on Stephenson on the next play. He squared up on the left wing, turned and backed in with two dribbles, and turned over his right shoulder and missed a jumper. Stephenson already had proven his refusal to back down, appearing to have words for James while at the foul line and tapping Ray Allen on the chest, which drew a retaliatory elbow from Allen.

“He's like a little gnat out here, getting underneath LaBron James and Ray Allen and trying to ruffle some feathers on that Heat side,” Miller said.

Stephenson was low-key about it all afterward, keeping the discussion with reporters crowding his locker to thoughts of shrinking air space and amplifying effort.

“We just tried to throw different bodies at him,” Stephenson said. “We've got Sam, we've got me. We just have to switch it up and let him see different defenses. It worked tonight.

“You can't be scared of him. He's the best player and he's going to make his shots. You just have to be aggressive and don't let him feel comfortable on the floor.”

For Young, the game was another validation of the confidence Vogel showed in him after his disastrous cameo in Game 1 of the second-round series against New York. Young finished with six points, six rebounds and two steals on Tuesday, aside from his defensive work on James. He was signed in the off-season for moments such as that one, and could be a greater factor going forward as the series becomes a best-of-three skirmish.

Young, a free agent again this summer, looks forward to the opportunity.

“I always feel confident, especially when I'm guarding somebody one on one,” he said. “I just try to do what I do with any other guy, contest every shot, make it difficult for him, make him finish over me, instead of letting him get to the side. If I can make him shoot a jump shot, all the better.”

James does not take losing lightly, and will bring the anger he felt from fouling out and drawing a technical foul during Game 4 into Thursday's game. The Pacers, at least, have proven they can share the burden of dealing with it.