Lance's Latest Pacers Reunion Exceeding Wildest Dreams

Weeks like this are a reminder of why we watch sports. Why we put up with the losses, the heartache, the disappointment of devoting so many hours to watching and cheering on teams that almost always are going to come up short of the ultimate goal.

The joy in sports is in the journey. We saw that this week from Keifer Sykes, who finally earned a guaranteed NBA contract at age 28, after spending over six seasons playing professionally across four continents, never giving up on his dream of making it to the NBA.

And we saw it as well with Lance Stephenson's second third act with the Pacers.

When you're watching sports, you never know when you're going to witness greatness. Often, it comes when you least expect it.

That certainly was the case with Stephenson, who at 31 years old and approaching three years removed from the last time he was on an NBA roster, turned back time with two incredible performances.

Signed to a 10-day hardship contract on Jan. 1 to bolster the roster as a number of Pacers went into the NBA's health and safety protocols, Stephenson was solid in a pair of road games in Cleveland and New York, averaging 5.5 points and 2.5 assists in 15 minutes per game.

But as he has throughout his stop-and-start Pacers career, Stephenson unearthed some rare elixir when he returned to Gainbridge Fieldhouse this week, putting on an all-time show over Indiana's two-game homestand. With fans he considers family giving him a standing ovation seemingly every time he headed to the scorer's table, touched the ball, or even took in a breath, Stephenson put together arguably the best two-game stretch of his NBA career.

Wednesday's 20-point outburst in the first quarter against Brooklyn was a transcendent moment, a singularly great stretch in both franchise and NBA history. But as great as he played for those six minutes, he played an even better overall game on Saturday.

Three nights after scoring the most points he has ever scored in over 300 career games with the Blue & Gold, Stephenson set a new career best with 14 assists in a 125-113 win over Utah. Ten of them went to Domantas Sabonis, who scored a career-high 42 points on 18-of-22 shooting, eye-popping numbers.

The victory snapped a six-game skid and breathed fresh air into a Pacers team that has struggled all season and is still significantly undermanned, with eight players out Saturday due to either injuries or the NBA's health and safety protocols.

"Lance has given us a different vibe as a team," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said. "The spark that he has provided, the personality. Of course, everybody that's been here knows all about this...There's a change in our team. A change in the disposition, the body language, the enthusiasm. It's been great to see."

The fans at the Fieldhouse were treated to a night at the symphony. Stephenson was the great conductor against the Jazz and Sabonis was his virtuoso cellist. Their work in the pick-and-roll was masterful, exploiting a Jazz defense that was missing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert due to health and safety protocols and playing small much of the night with backup center Hassan Whiteside battling foul trouble.

The entire building was rocking, as it is prone to do when Stephenson is showing out. Carlisle noted that he hadn't seen the Pacers' bench as invested all season as they have been over this homestand.

"He has a swag that goes around that everybody wants to be part of," Sabonis said.

The most memorable moment of the night came with 6:50 left in the fourth quarter. The Jazz were making a charge and had trimmed what was once a 16-point Pacers lead down to just four midway through the final frame.

Stephenson brought the ball up the right side, crossed up his former Indiana teammate Bojan Bogdanovic, drove and dropped off a no-look pass with his right hand to a cutting Sabonis. Stephenson left his right hand raised in the air and began skipping to the baseline as Sabonis threw down a thunderous slam, prompting a Utah timeout.

It was a prime example of the showmanship that makes Stephenson a fan-favorite, as well as the rekindling of his old relationship with Sabonis, one of just two Pacers still on the roster from Stephenson's last stint with the franchise (the other being Myles Turner).

"We took it back," Stephenson said. "Me and Domas, we was in the second unit the (last)time I came back here. Me and him used to do the pick-and-roll, it used to be like 'Showtime.' I just felt like it was a flashback, like, 'Oh, man, he's gonna be there' and I had to put my little twist to it."

The much more reserved Sabonis was amused by the whole sequence.

"That's all him," Sabonis quipped. "I've just got to be ready there to catch it and finish because if not, he's in trouble."

A lot has happened since Stephenson and Sabonis last played together. Sabonis moved into a starting role and has blossomed into an All-Star the past two seasons. But even after all their time away, Stephenson and Sabonis picked right back where they left off this week.

It was Stephenson who did the postgame "walk-off" interview with Bally Sports Indiana's Jeremiah Johnson after the win. He quipped that he knows Sabonis "like the back of my hand," did his trademark "WOOOO" at the end of the interview, then sprinted into the tunnel to the Pacers locker room, making sure to high-five each and every fan lined up to greet him in the hallway.

"I'm just excited, man," Stephenson said. "We got our first win. It's all about winning for real. You can have all the points you want, but if you don't win, it don't matter. I was just so excited that we got the win tonight. And I've got to get the fans involved because you know that's like family."

Not only did Stephenson dish out a career-best 14 assists on Saturday, it was the first time he had a points-assists double-double in nearly eight years. His last one came when he recorded a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists in a win over an Oklahoma City team that featured Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on April 13, 2014.

Lance Stephenson, Domantas Sabonis

Photo Credit: NBAE/Matt Kryger

This isn't supposed to happen. Life is short and time is fleeting, especially in the NBA. Rosters are overhauled year over year. Players change teams and cities several times in a brief span, then most are out of the league for good by the time they turn 30.

For Lance and the Pacers to have just one magical reunion felt improbable. To have a second, four years later? It should be impossible.

But for whatever reason, when Lance Stephenson puts on a Pacers uniform and takes the court at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the impossible happens.

Stephenson said he couldn't sleep before his first home game on Wednesday night. Even if he could, what unfolded this week would have seemed too preposterous if he dreamed it.

Stephenson was a near All-Star in his fourth NBA season in 2013-14, when he led the league in triple-doubles and helped the Pacers reach their second straight Eastern Conference Finals.

But he departed that summer in free agency, opting to sign with Charlotte, and struggled. He was traded to the Clippers after just one season and ultimately played for five teams over three seasons before making his first return to Indiana for the final six games of the 2016-17 regular season.

He provided a spark at that time, helping that team sneak into the playoffs. He was a key member of the roster the next season, when the team brought in Sabonis and Victor Oladipo in the Paul George trade and stunned the league by winning 48 games and taking LeBron James and the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cavs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

But the Pacers elected not to pick up Stephenson's option that summer and he signed with the Lakers, reuniting with former Pacers coach Frank Vogel for the 2018-19 season. Without an NBA offer that fall, Stephenson played in China and was mulling an attempt to return to the NBA right when the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

He couldn't secure a deal for the 2020-21 campaign, but elected to head to the G League this season, playing for the Grand Rapids Gold (Denver's affiliate) in hopes that he could impress teams enough to earn another chance in the NBA.

As the omicron variant ran through NBA rosters in December, Stephenson's opportunity arrived. He signed a 10-day hardship contract with Atlanta and former coach Nate McMillan on Dec. 22 and played in six games with the Hawks, then signed a 10-day deal with the Pacers immediately after his contract with Atlanta expired.

His Pacers contract is up after Monday's game in Boston, but it's hard to imagine him going anywhere. Assuming Indiana still has players in protocols (five were as of Saturday), he could sign a second 10-day deal. The Pacers also have an open roster spot after waiving Kelan Martin on Thursday.

Stephenson's fight to get back into the league has resonated with Carlisle, who hasn't coached him before, but heard rave reviews from Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard when the organization decided to sign him last week.

Carlisle revealed this week that he had several conversations with Stephenson when the Mavericks were courting him in free agency in the summer of 2014. Carlisle marveled on Saturday at how much Stephenson has been through in the ensuing years.

"His journey since then has led him to a place where there's just I think a real appreciation and a real level of gratitude for what it means to wear an NBA uniform, not to mention a Pacers uniform," Carlisle said. "He's impressed me as a humble guy who just appreciates everything. He's been great around the team."

How long this latest reunion between Stephenson and the Pacers will last remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – all parties involved will cherish every last second of it. Because weeks like this are why we love sports.