Stephenson Joins the Triple-Double Club

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 13, 2013 | 1:15 a.m.

Maybe they should start a club. Have a secret handshake that requires three steps to complete. Give out rings with three diamonds on them. Inscribe a mug, or something.

The Pacers now have four starters who have accumulated at least one triple-double, and would have five if the NBA's video police hadn't taken an assist away from George Hill last season after he had appeared to have achieved one. Of the 35 triple-doubles in their NBA history, dating back to Ricky Sobers' first one in 1978, five of them have come in the last calendar year, from four of the current starters. Roy Hibbert and David West had one last season, Paul George had two – one in the playoffs – and now Lance Stephenson has joined the club.

“He's part of us now,” George said, laughing.

Stephenson splattered 13 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists at Memphis Monday night, leading the Pacers to a 95-79 victory that stretched their season-opening win streak to eight. The same team on which each of the starters led the scoring at least once in last year's playoff series with New York now has four players with a triple-double – and is one assist shy of a perfect sweep.

For Stephenson, those numbers reflect growth and maturity. The same guy who blatantly irritated his teammates as a rookie, who seemingly had little interest in conforming to a professional culture, who left his coaches wondering how long he could survive in the NBA, has proved himself as a bona-fide starter on a so-far perfect team. Monday's performance could qualify as his initiation.

The 23-year-old put all his wares on display at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, good and bad: his improved shooting touch (he hit 3-of-5 three-pointers), his ballhandling and passing skills (his assist total was five more than his previous career high), his relentless rebounding (his 11 rebounds, all at the defensive end, tied his career high), his improved poise (just one turnover) and, his occasional lapses.

Yes, there are times he still reveals his youth and playground instincts. One of those came toward the end of the first half. Tony Allen had just hit a three-pointer to bring Memphis within nine points when Stephenson stood 30 feet from the basket and shoved the ball toward Allen's face with one hand. He didn't come close to hitting Allen, but referee Josh Tiven regarded it as taunting and called a technical foul with 4:17 left.

“I didn't think that was nothing,” Stephenson said afterward. “I got that from Michael Jordan. I seen Michael Jordan do that all the time. Now it's a technical foul. So I don't know if I'm going to do it anymore.”

It would be a good idea if he didn't. But the Pacers can live with that as more than a fair exchange for all that he contributes. Coach Frank Vogel confirmed that Stephenson doesn't have the green light to commit technical fouls or stray from the offense, but he's not letting those mishaps cloud his perspective.

“He broke a play at the end of the half, picked up a foul and got that technical,” Vogel said. “I said (in the locker room at halftime), 'Besides that you've got nine rebounds, eight assists and one turnover. You're doing great. Just be solid. You don't need the other stuff.'”

The other stuff is dwindling, which really is more the story than a triple-double. Stephenson's immaturity as a rookie and second-year player has been well-recorded. Former team president Donnie Walsh said before the game that some of the Pacers players told him of their frustration with Stephenson when Walsh was in charge of the Knicks' fortunes in the 2010-11 season. Roy Hibbert has gone on record as saying he didn't even like Stephenson then. And Vogel, who was an assistant coach during Stephenson's troubled rookie season, when he played in just 12 games, acknowledges that he had some doubts.

“He had a lot to learn about professionalism and how to work,” Vogel said.

Stephenson had plenty of people in his ear those first two seasons, but he said Monday that a conversation in the locker room with former teammate Jeff Foster during the playoffs in 2012 brought a turning point. Foster, who had retired earlier that season after 13 years with the Pacers, somehow found the right words. Or, perhaps, Stephenson was finally ready to hear them.

“He told me if you want to stay in this league you have to … be more of a pro,” Stephenson said. “He taught me how to be a pro. I tried to listen to him and feed off of him.”

Stephenson wasn't a total turnoff to his teammates those first two seasons, though, even when he was defiant to the coaches or pulling silly stunts such as making faces behind reporters who were interviewing players in the locker room. George, the first-round draft pick the same year Stephenson was taken in the second round, admired his toughness.

“It was a rare thing to see, especially being a rookie,” George said. “I was just trying to do everything right. He was kind of the bad child. It really forced me to be tough. I learned a lot from him, watching him with his toughness and the way he carried himself.

“But I did wonder if he would get it. His toughness is still there but now he's much more mature about things and he's a professional. He's one of the favorites in this locker room.”

David West joined the Pacers for Stephenson's second season with the team. He saw the rough edges, too, but appreciated the fact Stephenson has an edge.

“Lance has strong will,” West said. “You knew it was a matter of time. He has the smarts and the knack to play the game. It was just about him getting older. It's starting to come together for him. I personally put a lot of pressure on him to do the right thing, make the right play, make the right decision every single time. And I think he feels that. It's not OK to go back to where you were. It's not OK.”

It's unlikely that any other NBA team has had four starters – nearly five – who have recorded triple-doubles. What matters more than the historical context, though, is what it means to the Pacers now. They have five complete players in their starting lineup, five players willing to share the ball and do the dirty work of rebounding. They must be a dreadful sight for opposing coaches who have to construct a plan to defend them. They have length, bulk, outside shooting, inside threats and nobody a defender can turn his back on.

“We have high IQ guys, guys who can play the game and aren't one-dimensional,” West said.

Oh, yeah. They also are far and away the league's best defensive team.

The Pacers have an embarrassment of riches these days. Once an embarrassment, Stephenson makes them even wealthier.

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