Pacers Need Lance-A-Lot

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 17, 2014

Lance Stephenson was the last starter off the Pacers' practice court Saturday, by about 15 minutes. This is the norm for the player once known as Born Ready, who would be better defined today as Always Ready.

He worked his way around the three-point arc, shooting from five spots, hitting more than he missed, chatting all the while with assistant coach Popeye Jones and the ballboys who rebounded for him. He finished at the foul line, hitting 17 in a row, then six, then four, tossing the ball underhanded high into the air after each streak-busting miss. He finished by turning his back to the basket and flipping a one-handed shot over his shoulder and through the net.

“I'm never tired,” he told reporters moments later. “I'm never tired.”

The Pacers will need tireless effort from Stephenson beginning Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This is the Eastern Conference finals and this is Miami, the moment they've kept had in mind since they lost to the Heat in Game 7 in last year's conference finals. Stephenson is still wild and crazy at times, but he's also older and wiser and more capable of neutralizing Miami's second-greatest asset, Dwyane Wade. Stephenson is 23 and still growing into become an NBA player, while Wade is 32 and limping toward the finish line. Their careers intersect again in this series, and it could be quite a collision.

“Lance has to be dialed in,” Paul George said. “We're going to need Lance on both ends of the court. Whether he's making shots or missing shots, we're going to need his effort. If he comes and doesn't bring effort, we're going to be in trouble.”

Miami nursed Wade throughout the season, holding him out of 28 games, to save him for moments such as this one, but he clearly has something left in his aching knees. He's averaged 17.9 points in Miami's nine playoff games, shooting 50 percent from the field while playing 34 minutes per game.

Stephenson has averaged 13.5 points on 44 percent shooting, running hot and cold as he tends to do, but he's coming off one of the most meaningful performances of his career. He had 17 points, eight assists and just one turnover in 41 minutes in the close-out victory at Washington Thursday. More games like that and the Pacers should be playing in their second NBA Finals in June. He'll need to keep his emotions in check to do it, though, and that hasn't always been easy when sharing hardwood with Wade.

Wade outscored Stephenson 64-40 in three games during the regular season (Wade sat out one), but Stephenson was playing him physically and evenly in their third meeting at Bankers Life in March. Both had scored 15 points in that game until Stephenson was ejected after staring down Wade after scoring on him with 5:01 left. The two had drawn double-technical fouls earlier in the game, so the second one forced Stephenson to watch what turned out to be an 84-83 victory from the locker room.

That game was just a continuation of their postseason encounters last year, when Wade got away with a leaping forearm aimed at Stephenson's head while running downcourt during a game in Miami. So, yeah, they have some history. And yeah, Stephenson has some pent-up frustration to add to his usual energy level. And, yeah, he's eager to try to test Wade's right knee, which barely made it to last season's finish line because of bone bruises.

“Definitely,” Stephenson said, chomping his gum. “D. Wade, his knee is kind of messed up, so I have to be extra aggressive and make him run. Tell Coach to run (the play) 'Floppy' and run him around and make his knee flare up or something. Do anything possible so the games will come easier for us.”

Stephenson allowed himself a slight chuckle at that thought, but he didn't go out of bounds in his comments. He didn't, for example, bite on a Miami reporter's loaded question:

“At what point did you sense these teams don't like each other?”

“It's just basketball,” Stephenson said. “If I see D. Wade walking down the street, I'm not going to try to get him. It's just basketball. We're just playing hard against each other. We both have a goal. Our goal is going to try to get that 'chip. Neither of us is going to allow that to happen easily. I have no problems with him. But on the court, no friends.”

Pacers coach Frank Vogel had a long chat with Stephenson following the Pacers' practice leading up to their Game 6 win at Washington. The message was to stay aggressive and facilitate the offense, advice he followed to a T without picking up a T.

Now Stephenson faces the biggest challenge of his career. The Pacers are no longer the lovable upstart trying to knock off the Heat, they are a No. 1 seed that will leave a trail of disappointment if they don't win this series. Stephenson, it seems, will have as much to do with the outcome as any of them.

“My role is to come out and be aggressive and be the X factor,” he said. “Just do my part. I feel if I come out with energy the other guys will come out with more energy. If I come out lackadaisical my teammates will play like that. I know I play a big factor in this.”

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