Lance Stephenson danced his way back into Pacers fans' hearts on Wednesday night, making an improbable addition to his Gainbridge Fieldhouse career highlight reel with an epic performance.
In his third stint with the franchise that drafted him with the 40th overall pick in 2010, the 31-year-old erupted for 20 points in the first quarter on his way to a Pacers career-high 30 points, helping undermanned Indiana build an improbable 19-point lead over a Brooklyn Nets squad playing with its Big Three for the first time all season.
In the end, however, the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving was too much for the Blue & Gold, as Brooklyn (24-12) rallied in the second half and pulled away late for a 129-121 victory over Indiana (14-25).
Domantas Sabonis was exceptional in the loss, as the All-Star forward carried a heavy load and tallied a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists.
But the story of the night for Pacers fans was Stephenson, who had not played for the Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse since Game 6 of a first-round playoff series against Cleveland on April 27, 2018. He had been out of the league since the 2018-19 season, spending a year in China prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and began this season with the G League's Grand Rapids Gold before joining first Atlanta and then Indiana on 10-day hardship contracts over the past few weeks.
But Stephenson found the fountain of youth on Wednesday in the building where he has experienced many of the highs in his rollercoaster career, providing a sorely-needed spark for a team mired in a five-game losing streak and missing 10 players due to a combination of injuries and the NBA's health and safety protocols.
It wasn't enough to ultimately pull off the upset, but it created at least one last memory in an Indiana uniform for one of the most beloved Pacers of all time.
"I couldn't even sleep last night," Stephenson said of his return to his favorite arena. "I was definitely excited for this game. I just knew the fans were going to come out and make me feel welcome. If you're playing in front of a crowd that's welcoming, it's amazing. I just had to go out there and show out."
Durant got off to a hot start, scoring nine of the Nets' first 15 points, but the shorthanded Pacers hung tough with Brooklyn early. The two teams were tied at 15 when Stephenson checked in for the first time with 6:23 remaining in the first quarter.
As the artist also known as Born Ready ran to the scorer's table, the fans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse began to rise to their feet and greeted their prodigal son with a standing ovation as he checked into his first home game as a Pacer since 2018. Myles Turner and Sabonis, his only remaining teammates from his last stint with the Blue & Gold, even joined in the applause.
A short while later, the crowd erupted once again as Stephenson brought the ball up the floor for the first time. Perhaps inspired by the applause, Stephenson pulled up and drilled a 3-pointer with 5:11 remaining in the first quarter. As he ran back down the court, Stephenson turned to the west sideline and strummed the air guitar, one of his signature celebrations.
Stephenson was far from done. He scored on the next three possessions, hitting jumpers at 4:27 and 4:02, then driving to the rim for a layup at 3:36. He finally missed a 3-pointer at 3:01, but bounced back by burying his next trey 45 seconds later.
"The first couple of games I haven't been as aggressive as I wanted to be, I've just been trying to find people," Stephenson said. "I told myself today I'm going to be just a little more aggressive, try to find my shot and make something happen."
He then added another layup over two Nets defenders at 1:16 and — after the Nets were called for an inbounds violation — drilled his third three seven seconds later. After Durant's dunk cut the Pacers' lead to 34-32 with 17 seconds remaining, Stephenson brought the ball up one final time to close the quarter. With James Johnson guarding him on the left wing, Stephenson dribbled the clock down, then pulled up and drilled yet another three as the buzzer sounded, sending the entire crowd and the Pacers' bench into hysterics as he gyrated his way to midcourt.
It was a surreal sequence, as Stephenson, who joined the team just four days earlier on a 10-day hardship contract, erupted for 20 straight Indiana points in the final 5:11 of the first quarter, going 8-for-9 from the field and 4-for-5 from 3-point range. Despite playing just half the quarter, he set the franchise record for most points ever scored in the opening frame, surpassing the previous record of 19, set by T.J. Warren in his 53-point outburst in the NBA bubble on Aug. 1, 2020.
"The adrenaline and energy in the building, it all manifested in that wild run that he went on when he got in, which was amazing," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said. "Just amazing."
Buoyed by Stephenson's outburst, the Pacers dominated the second quarter, pushing their lead as high as 14 points and taking a 73-60 advantage into halftime. Stephenson added four more points and four assists in the frame and danced his way into the locker room after a halftime interview with Bally Sports Indiana's Jeremiah Johnson.
"I don't know, man," Stephenson said. "It's just the feeling. As soon as I put that jersey on, I just feel like I get my powers. I don't know what it is. Every time I put that jersey on I just feel comfortable."
Indiana stretched its lead to 81-62 following a pair of Turner free throws less than two minutes into the second half. Brooklyn mounted a charge, twice cutting the deficit to 12 later in the frame, but a pair of technical fouls on Durant and De'Andre Bembry halted some of that momentum.
Stephenson added another jumper and Sabonis had two nice dishes to set up a Keifer Sykes layup and Duane Washington Jr. 3-pointer during a 10-5 Indiana run to push the lead back to 98-81 with three minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Nets once again charged back with a Patty Mills three and Durant jumper before Stephenson connected with Sabonis in the pick-and-roll for a three-point play. That was the last positive play for Indiana in the period, as Brooklyn reeled off eight straight points over the final 1:14, capped by Irving's buzzer-beating jumper to make it a 101-94 game entering the fourth quarter.
The Nets continued their charge in the final frame, cutting the deficit to 105-102 on Nic Claxton's dunk with 9:01 to play, then getting within two on Bembry's layup 44 seconds later. Brooklyn finally took the lead when Durant drove baseline and kicked to Mills for an open three in the corner with 7:22 remaining.
Back-to-back Irving jumpers pushed the Nets' lead to 111-106, capping a 25-5 run and forcing a timeout from Carlisle with 6:11 remaining. Out of the timeout, Stephenson got a dunk off a dish from Sabonis, but was whistled for delay of game, his second admonishment of the night, resulting in a technical foul.
The Nets wound up scoring three points on that possession and maintained a multi-possession lead until Sabonis' three-point play at 3:54 made it 116-113. But Durant scored over Oshae Brissett on the other end, then stripped Sabonis leading to a fastbreak layup for Irving to push the lead back to seven. The Pacers never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
"As the game went on, the fact that we played last night in another emotional game I think caught up with us," Carlisle said. "I think fatigue became a factor. It was tough."
Stephenson finished the night with 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting (4-of-8 from 3-point range), three rebounds, and five assists in 31 minutes off the bench.
Sabonis went 10-for-14 from the field and 11-for-13 from the free throw line.
Durant tallied a game-high 39 points on 15-of-24 shooting, eight rebounds, and seven assists to lead Brooklyn to victory. Irving, who was recently cleared by the Nets to play with the team in road games (he is unable to play in home games due to a New York City vaccine mandate), added 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting and four assists in 32 minutes in his season debut.
Harden added 18 points, five rebounds, and six assists for the Nets.
Keifer Sykes finished with 18 points and five assists for Indiana in just his fifth NBA game. Turner added 14 points and five blocks, while Duane Washington Jr. scored 10.
The Pacers continue a two-game homestand on Saturday against Utah and could get reinforcements against the Jazz. Three players have cleared protocols over the past two days — Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, and Chris Duarte — and could be cleared to take the floor on Saturday.
Inside the Numbers
Sabonis recorded his franchise-leading 15th triple-double of his career and his second this season.
Stephenson's 30 points were his most ever in a Pacer uniform. His previous best was 28 in a win over New York on Jan. 16, 2014. His overall career high is 33 points for Memphis in a win over New Orleans on March 11, 2016.
The Pacers outscored the Nets by 24 points from beyond the arc. Indiana went 13-for-39 (33.3 percent from 3-point range), while Brooklyn was just 5-for-21 (23.8 percent).
The Nets outscored Indiana 60-46 in points in the paint.
Durant's 39 points matched his second-highest scoring game of the season. He also scored 39 against Phoenix on Nov. 27 and had a season-best 51 in a victory in Detroit on Dec. 12.
Brooklyn shot 56.3 percent from the field in the win, narrowly missing out on the best field goal percentage by a Pacers opponent this season. Chicago posted a .566 percentage in a win over Indiana on Dec. 26, the start of what is now a six-game losing streak for the Blue & Gold.
You Can Quote Me On That
"This is home. I've still got my house here. I never left here. It's amazing to play here. This is like playing in front of my family." -Stephenson on Indiana
"I'll play anywhere. I love this game. I just wanted to get back. Just wanted to play basketball...playing basketball makes me really happy. Going to the G League, putting all my pride aside, I don't care, man. Just playing basketball makes me feel great." -Stephenson on fighting to get back in the NBA
"It was amazing. He's been through a lot. To come back home and have this kind of game, it means a lot. I wish we could have got the win for him." -Sabonis on Stephenson's performance
"You think about it, it's three games in four days. He had one session to walk though everything on Saturday night and that's been it. He's playing the game just on feel and recognition and things like that." -Carlisle on Stephenson
"Just trying to be more aggressive, get in the paint, find open guys. Get the ball moving and just (making sure) everybody (touches) the ball." -Sabonis on his triple-double
Stat of the Night
Stephenson was the first player to score 20 straight points for his team since Stephen Curry did it for Golden State on April 10 of last season. He also became the first player ever to score 20 points off the bench in the first quarter (data available dating back to the 1996-97 season).
- The Nets have won six in a row over the Pacers and five straight games at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
- Pacers two-way guard Terry Taylor and 10-day signee Ahmad Caver made their NBA debuts in the final minute of the game. Caver scored his first career points on a layup in the closing seconds.
- Torrey Craig was out on Wednesday after straining his groin in Tuesday night's loss in New York.
The Pacers welcome Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz on Saturday, Jan. 8 at 7:00 PM ET at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Find Tickets »