Pacers Feeding Off Stephenson's Energy

Nov. 28, 2017 - During practice on Tuesday, the Pacers talked about the lift that Lance Stephenson brings when he gets the crowd involved in the action.

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Pacers Feeding Off Stephenson's Energy

Nov. 28, 2017 - During practice on Tuesday, the Pacers talked about the lift that Lance Stephenson brings when he gets the crowd involved in the action.
Nov 28, 2017  |  01:15

Pacers Finding the Balance Between Frolic and Focus

by Mark Montieth Writer

Nate McMillan felt helpless.

Orlando had just called timeout after Domantas Sabonis' reverse layup off a showtime pass from Lance Stephenson had given the Pacers a 100-91 lead with 7:43 left in Monday's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but his players weren't headed toward the Pacers' bench. They were dancing and screaming as if they had just won an NBA championship. One, Stephenson, was even high-fiving fans on the opposite side of the court.

It all made McMillan feel like the grade school teacher who's temporarily lost control of a classroom full of crazy kids.

"I couldn't stop that last night," he said with a touch of bewilderment following Tuesday's practice at the St. Vincent Center. "As soon as the timeout was called, half the bench had left. They were out there at halfcourt."

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Suffice to say, it wasn't what McMillan wanted to see with the game not over, and in fact still on the line. And, suffice to say, it remains one of his primary challenges with this rambunctious team that's capturing the city's heart with its raw enthusiasm. Where does a coach draw the line between frolic and focus? How does he get them to concentrate on their work after they've had so much fun at recess?

"We talked about that," said McMillan, whose team improved to 12-9 with the 121-109 victory over the Magic. "We want our guys to have fun and have a good spirit about the game. It was one of those moments. I don't think we were trying to show up anybody or embarrass anybody. We were excited about the way we were playing. The ball movement we had on that possession, we go emotional.

"But we don't want to embarrass an opponent. We respect the game and we want to always show that on the floor."

You can mostly blame Stephenson for this issue. Or, if you have a fan's perspective, you can praise him for it. Stephenson is lighting up his teammates and Bankers Life Fieldhouse just as he did last season, when he dropped in for the final six regular season games and first-round playoff series with Cleveland.

This group doesn't need his adrenaline injections as badly as the one last season, but it's benefiting from it just the same. Stephenson comes off the bench, makes a shot, gets an assist or grabs a ball-slapping rebound, the crowd revs up, the players begin feeding off the building's buzz, and it gradually builds to a chaotic crescendo. Next thing you know, Stephenson is high-fiving fans with 7 ½ minutes still to play while Myles Turner is running across the court, waving his arms as if he'd just won the lottery.

"He plays off the crowd. He plays for the crowd," McMillan said of Stephenson. "We feed off of that."

So, McMillan is good with most of what Stephenson brings. He just prefers that lines are not crossed – both the sideline in front of the Pacers' bench during a time out and the figurative lines of professional decorum - and that the frenzied celebrations be contained until after the final buzzer sounds.

Stephenson understands. To a point.

"Coach definitely called me over and was like, 'Man, relax,'" Stephenson recalled of Monday's inflammatory timeout.

"But I was so hyped. We had made a run and we were playing so together. It just felt like that was real basketball movement. We were playing together and all on the same page."

Orlando coach Frank Vogel, who helped nurture Stephenson's career in Stephenson's first tour with the Pacers, neatly summarized the challenge of coaching Stephenson before Monday's game by calling him "an acquired taste." The Pacers have known how to get the most out of him by allowing him to play through mistakes and missed shots, and by letting him control the ball more than other teams have.

McMillan had already acquired a taste for Stephenson, having become acquainted in his first season as an assistant to Vogel in Stephenson's final season with the Pacers, before Stephenson's advisors left him with no choice but to sign with Charlotte after a fractured free agent negotiation period in 2014.

McMillan saw a favorable equation, with many more positives than negatives to be had by giving Stephenson a long leash on the court. He was all for signing Stephenson last season, and let him play through a poor start to this season.

Now, he's being rewarded.

"We've had a lot of conversations, even when I was an assistant, about some of the things he brought to the floor and the way he went about playing the game," McMillan said. "You expect guys to mature from that, but Lance is an emotional player. It's difficult for him to get into the game if he's not … playing for the crowd and enjoying the game."

"I think he's grown and he's getting better."

McMillan, in fact, wants to see Stephenson's crowd-pleasing energy expand – to the defensive end of the court.

"Our focus for him is to play both ends of the floor," he said. "It's not just one end we want you to get excited about. There's two ends.

"He's getting better. He's starting to learn what we want him to do defensively."

McMillan would like Stephenson's energy to expand somewhere else, too: the road. The difference between his play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and other NBA arenas has been dramatic this season. He's been a chameleon, mutating to his environment.

At home, where he can literally feel the fans, he's been a rock star. In 10 games, he's averaged 11.6 points on 47 percent shooting and has hit 13-of-31 3-pointers. On the road, where he gets no love, he's faded into the scenery. In 11 games, he's averaged just 4.3 points on 36 percent shooting and has hit just 1-of-13 3-pointers.

That isn't representative of his career, though. In his last full season with the Pacers, 2013-14, he averaged just 1.5 more points at home and shot better from the 3-point line on the road. So, there's hope for balance.

Regardless of where he plays, Stephenson can be an acquired taste for players, too. He's the kind of player others must make room for, in the course of a game as well as emotionally. When Vogel allowed him to flourish four seasons ago, when Stephenson led the NBA with five triples-doubles and was considered a legitimate candidate for the All-Star game, sacrifices had to be made. It meant fewer shots for all the starters except Paul George. David West adapted smoothly, finding shots in the seams of the defense and taking whatever opportunities came in the flow of the game. George Hill accepted it, despite often being made to go stand in the corner and wait for a possible pass from a penetrating Stephenson or George. Roy Hibbert, an All-Star selection that season, struggled with his reduced touches, and let it affect his overall mood and performance.

Asked whether this group has had to acquire a taste for Stephenson, Turner hesitated.

"I don't know how to answer that, to be honest with you," he said. "I feel like if you've never played with Lance or seen him play, you'd be like, 'Whoa, who is this guy?' I've seen Lance play before (from) when I was growing up and watched him play with the Pacers. I kind of knew what to expect. And most of the guys on this team have been around the league for a second, so they know of Lance. It helps that the coaching staff has coached Lance in the past as well, so I think we all knew what we were getting with him."

So far, they like it. Like their coach, they recognize the impact. At times, they can even feel it.

"You've got to let Lance rock, man," Turner said. "Let him be him. He just brings that tenacity and energy that we need."

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