Stephenson’s Energy Pushes Pacers over the Top

by Manny Randhawa

December 14, 2013 | 12:35 a.m.

With 4:20 left in regulation of the Pacers’ 99-94 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday night, Lance Stephenson had the basketball on the right baseline. He backed down his defender, Ben Gordon, and after a slight hesitation to lull Gordon into a false sense of assuredness that Stephenson would go right, Lance made his move.

Stephenson, in the blink of an eye, was gone. With his back to the basket, he made a lightning-quick spin to his left along the baseline, finishing strong with a layup while he was fouled. After he completed the three-point play by sinking the free throw, the Pacers – who were trailing 90-89 – now had a 92-90 lead.

That play was the epitome of what Stephenson brought to the court Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: an energy that the Pacers needed in a game that was anything but normal for Indiana.

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Paul George scored a season-low 10 points on 2-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-6 from 3-point range. The normally impenetrable Indiana defense was porous on this night, as Charlotte shot 47 percent and scored 40 points in the paint – marking just the seventh time in 23 games an opponent has scored 40 or more in the paint against the Pacers (the other teams to accomplish the feat include the Heat, Thunder, Clippers, and Bulls with Derrick Rose).

“I just wanted to make a play,” Stephenson said. “I didn’t want the game to be close. I was going extra, extra hard and I was just trying to make a play and be very aggressive.”

As the Bobcats hung around – trading leads with the Pacers as late as that 4:20 mark in the 4th – it was Stephenson that did what he’s always talking about doing: being the “high energy guy.”

“He was huge for us tonight,” George said of Stephenson. “He took a real active role in facilitating and looking for his own tonight. And we’re going to need him. We’re going to need him throughout the whole season to make plays and to play at that level and bring that energy. Because there’s going to be nights when some guys don’t have that same energy.”

Stephenson has always shown energy on the floor, and this has been seen as a positive, but perhaps Friday night’s performance provided a different rationale for why it can be a good thing.

Stephenson finished with 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting, with 11 rebounds, seven assists and two steals, picking up the scoring slack on an off-night for George and the Pacers’ defense.

“Paul’s been playing incredible all year,” Stephenson said. “Tonight he was just a little off … sometimes you’re going to be off; you can’t have a perfect game every game. So I just tried to help us out and be that guy to get us that ‘W’.”

“We needed that,” George Hill said of Stephenson’s energy and production. “Paul didn’t play the game that we know Paul normally plays. Lance really stepping up and giving a little extra energy and effort really helped us get over that hump.”

It seemed that whenever the Pacers looked as though this one might inexplicably be slipping away from their grasp, Stephenson made a “high energy” play. Earlier in the game, he had another highlight-worthy spin move on the other side of the floor, again going baseline to the rim and finishing despite being fouled.

With the Pacers down 41-35 and 6:37 remaining in the first half, that play sparked an 11-2 Indiana run.

“I just wanted to bring it today,” Stephenson added. “I wanted to be that energy guy … I just tried to do something to get the crowd hyped and get everybody energized.”

That energy pushed the Pacers over the top Friday, to their 20th win of the season in 23 games, not to mention their 11th home win in as many games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“Lance did a great job being aggressive,” said Roy Hibbert, who had 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. “He was our catalyst, and he really pushed us over the edge.”

If Stephenson continues to play like he has in the first two-plus months of the season, there will be whispers about his candidacy for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award – an honor his teammate, George, won last season.

But for a man they call “Born Ready,” that idea doesn’t mask what he’s really after.

“I’m not worried about that,” Stephenson said. “I’m just worried about us getting ‘W’s.’ I’m not worried about being an All-Star or Most Improved Player. I let my game speak for itself, and I’m just trying to bring it every night.”

He brought it Friday night, and it helped the Pacers keep the Bobcats at bay.

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