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Time for Stephenson to Move On

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 20, 2013, 8:05 PM

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Saturday was a party. The biggest game of his life, screams of approval from a sold-out arena, an intense, adoring focus from the national media, and an endless stream of texts clicking into his cell phone.

About 190 of them to be semi-exact.

But that's all ancient history now for Lance Stephenson. Those 25 points and 10 rebounds he recorded as the Pacers closed out New York might as well be recorded on hieroglyphics now. In the intense, harsh, exaggerated atmosphere of the NBA playoffs, you're only as good as your last game, and even then only for a couple of days, before the focus shifts to your next game.

Stephenson's next game is the opener of the Eastern Conference finals in Miami, where his memories aren't so pleasant. Last time the Pacers played there, on March 10, Stephenson had nothing to celebrate: he scored six points on 1-of-5 shooting and had three rebounds, and four fouls in 33 minutes. He wasn't alone, as the Pacers were dominated 105-91, but he seemed to have been singled out.

LeBron James assigned himself to Stephenson for that game, after guarding Paul George in the Pacers' two victories at Bankers Life Fieldhouse earlier in the season. James apparently wanted to personally deliver some payback. Stephenson had scored 15 points in the most recent game between the two teams, on Feb. 1, and afterward offered an optimistic appraisal: “If we play as a unit, nobody can stop us.”

And, of course, there was the infamous choke sign Stephenson had made during last season's playoff series between the two teams after James missed two free throws in a game at BLF. Stephenson was required to provide an official apology for that one, but James dismissed the matter as something beneath his interest.

“Lance Stephenson?” he asked reporters when the incident was brought up to him. “You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time.”

Stephenson admits to being caught off-guard by James' decision to guard him in the previous meeting. Coming off Saturday's performance, however, he's in no mood to capitulate if King James takes special interest in him again.

“That was during the season,” he said. “We're in the playoffs now. Everybody's better, and I feel more confident in myself. I'm just going game-by-game. Whatever happens, whatever they bring to me, I'm going to play to my ability.”

Did he feel intimidated by James' interest in him then?

“I just took it as a challenge,” he said. “That game, I didn't do too good. So the next time he tries to guard me like that, I'm just going to try to bring it to him.”

Stephenson, at 22, is in the terrible-twos phase of his NBA career. He's totally unpredictable, capable of almost anything at any time, as he showed in the final two games of the series against the Knicks. He scored just four points on 1-of-7 shooting in Game 5 at New York last Thursday, which turned out to be the perfect prelude to his shining moment in Game 6 on Saturday.

“I was so pissed after (Game 5),” he recalled Monday. “Ian (Manhimi) calmed me down. He said, 'Man, this is your first playoffs, take it easy. You're built for this.' It showed the next game.”

Now comes another next game, and a greater challenge for Stephenson. He has grown before everyone's eyes this season, especially those of Larry Bird, who gambled a second-round draft pick on him three years ago. (By the way, Stephenson doesn't know yet if Bird sent him a congratulatory text following Saturday's game. He hasn't taken time to scroll through them all yet.)

The Pacers' hope of upsetting the Heat would seem to require continued progress from Stephenson, or at least no regression. He averaged 7.8 points in the first-round elimination of Atlanta, and 11.7 points against the Knicks. As the least-proven starter among the Pacers, he has the most opportunity to make a difference when he plays well. But he's also the most at-risk for failing to live up to the moment. Now, coming off the biggest moment of his career, he faces his greatest challenge.

“Handling success is part of any player's growth,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He obviously had the game of his life the other night. We need him to play that way in this series as well.”

Stephenson is young and promising enough to have time and room for several more games of his life. The challenge now is to continue commanding James' interest.

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